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Can Radiation Pills Help?

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State health officials are considering a plan to distribute a drug that could help prevent thyroid cancer in the event of an accident at one of Ohio's nuclear power plants. While most local officials favor the distribution, they warn the treatment is not a magic pill. 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer has more.

Friday, March 1, 2002 at 3:49 pm

Karen Schaefer: The plan to distribute KI - or potassium iodide - comes from the federal government, although participation is strictly voluntary. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission first made the recommendation in January of 2001, nearly nine months before the September terrorist attacks. Since then the state has held three public meetings for residents who live near Ohio's two nuclear power plants outside of Toledo and Cleveland and for those who live near the Beaver Valley plant in western Pennsylvania. At the final meeting last week in Lake County, the NRC's Roland Lickus explained how the pills work.

Roland Lickus: Potassium iodide can effectively block the uptake of iodine radiation in the thyroid gland, thus reducing the risk of future development of a radiation-induced thyroid cancer. Potassium iodide should be administered before or immediately coincident with the exposure to radioactive iodine...

KS: The government is offering states free pills for every man, woman, and child who lives within a 10-mile radius of the plants. It will be up to state and local health and emergency officials to decide how to distribute them. For people who live outside those zones, the state is providing information on where to buy the drug. Health officials say most people should be able to take KI with no negative side effects. But even the NRC admits potassium iodide is no magic bullet. Bob Weisdack is Health Commissioner for Geauga County.

Bob Weisdack: If there is an even, this potassium iodide pill, you might as well flip it up in the air and run, cause it isn't going to help you anyhow. Because if you have a massive, if you have a massive explosion in that plant, this potassium iodide pill is nothing.

KS: The pills provide only temporary protection against iodine radiation, so officials say evacuation is still crucial following a nuclear accident. The state must finish preparing its distribution plan before it can apply for the pills. Among its recommendations are direct distribution to residents - possibly through pharmacies - with small stockpiles available at evacuation centers. State and county agencies will have to bear the costs of both distribution and education. But some residents - and local health officials - have deeper concerns.

Residents: Potassium iodide is solely effective in terms of preventing thyroid cancer. It has absolutely no value in preventing other types of cancer...

The perception of KI being the magic bullet. I think it is out there, so to speak...

I have two children who are in school and I am very concerned about implementing distribution to my children in school in the event that I cannot reach them effectively and quickly...

My concern primarily is more along the lines of safety and defense...

As a chemical engineer, there is no such thing as a safe plant. You never know when an operator's going to make a mistake. The other thing that disturbs me is we had meetings in the 1970's about potassium iodide and we haven't done anything about it since.

KS: In the mid-1970's Ohio decided to give potassium iodide to emergency workers and the institutionalized. Some anti-nuclear activists have charged the drug should have been made available to the public then. But the NRC's Roland Lickus says it has taken time to assess KI's effectiveness.

RL: What Chernobyl taught us was the efficacy, the effectiveness of the use of potassium iodide. And part of the things that took time is to analyze the results of people who were exposed to radioactive iodine and what the effects were in Russia.

KS: While concerns over education the public about KI's use and limitations still linger, most residents and health officials agree it should now be made available to the public. Nine states have already applied for the pills and several have received shipment. The state health department will continue taking public comment on its plan to distribute KI through March 15. The plan goes to the Governor for approval in early April. Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.