Anti-Radiation Pills Bought as U.S. Fears Rise

Experts say the risk to the West Coast is very small.

ByABC News
March 14, 2011, 11:01 PM

March 15, 2011 — -- With fears growing of a nuclear disaster in Japan, Americans are taking their own steps to protect themselves from radiation.

There's a run on iodide pills, Geiger counters and emergency kits on Never mind that Japan is on the other side of the world; even Midwesterners are preparing.

Potassium iodide tablets protect the thyroid gland from radioactive material by overloading it with nonradioactive iodine.

"There is no increased risk of harmful levels of radiation exposure in the United States based on the situation to date at the nuclear power complex in Japan," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles' Director of Public Health. "Residents who ingest potassium iodide out of concern of possible exposure from this situation are doing something which is not only ineffective, but could also cause side effects."

Dan Sprau, who teaches radiation safety at East Carolina University, said, "Potassium can lead to heart problems."

Dr. Tim Jorgensen, an associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University, said that giving an adult dose of potassium iodide to an infant would be toxic.

In Redding, Calif., Whitney's Vitamin and Herb Shop is stocking up on potassium iodide tablets after the store said it was overwhelmed with calls this weekend from people seeking the anti-radiation medicine.

But Jorgensen says Californians have no reason to panic.

"In my opinion, the risk to California is so small, it's remote."

Radiation is all around us and it's perfectly normal and safe. Bananas are radioactive. So are microwave ovens, cell phones and X-rays, even people. Every year, just walking around on the planet, each of us is exposed to about 3.5 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation. That is the equivalent of approximately 94 chest X-rays.

In order to get radiation sickness you need to be exposed to 1,000 mSv at once. For most people radiation would be fatal at about 5,000 mSv.

To put this in perspective, the radiation levels at the nuclear plant in Japan are about 400 mSv. That means you would have to sit there for two and a half hours to get sick.