- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - Japan’s nuclear crisis is spiking demand in the U.S. and a few other places for a cheap drug that can protect against one type of radiation damage _ even though the risk is only in Japan.

Health agencies in California and western Canada warned Tuesday that there’s no reason for people an ocean away to suddenly stock up on potassium iodide. Some key suppliers say they’re back-ordered and are getting panicked calls from potential customers.

“Tell them, `Stop, don’t do it,’” said Kathryn Higley, director of radiation health physics at Oregon State University.

“There’s a lot of mythology about the use of potassium iodide,” added Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician and disaster preparedness specialist at Columbia University. “It’s not a radiation antidote in general.”

The pill can help prevent radioactive iodine from causing thyroid cancer, for which children are most at risk in a nuclear disaster.

Japan’s Nuclear Safety Agency has stored potassium iodide to distribute in case of high radiation exposure, and the U.S. Navy is giving it to military crews exposed to radiation as they help with relief efforts in Japan. But government and independent experts say that Americans have little to fear from any radiation released by the damaged Japanese nuclear plant.

“You just aren’t going to have any radiological material that, by the time it traveled those large distances, could present any risk to the American public,” said Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jazcko.

Other governments echoed that warning.

“We do not expect any health risk following the nuclear reactor releases in Japan, nor is the consumption of potassium iodide tablets a necessary precaution,” British Columbia’s health ministry told the public Tuesday.

In Russia, where memory of the very different Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago is strong, media reports said pharmacies in Vladivostok, a major port just west of Japan, had run out of the pills.

“The mass media tells us that the wind is blowing the other way, that radiation poses no threat. But people are a mess,” Valentina Chupina, a nanny in Vladivostok, said in a comment posted on the website of the newspaper Delovoi Peterburg. She said people don’t believe the government will warn them if something goes wrong so potassium iodide is being bought up in the pharmacies.

In the U.S., whether people fear fallout from Japan or a nuclear accident here, potassium iodide seems to have become something of a hot commodity.

“I feel strongly there is a high likelihood we will have radiation coming from Japan,” said Tammy Lahutsky as she waited at the Texas Star Pharmacy in Plano, Texas on Tuesday. There’s not, but she bought six bottles for herself and a friend, anyway.

“I can’t tell you how many women are calling up in tears,” said Alan Morris, president of Anbex Inc., a leading supplier. His order line ringing in the background, Morris said the company had sold out of more than 10,000 14-pill packages and doesn’t expect more supply until April.

Internet seller NukePills.com donated 50,000 potassium iodide tablets to a physician-run disaster-relief team in Japan, pills not suitable for U.S. retail sale because of packaging issues and expiration dates. Regardless, “these pills really needed to go where people were in the most dire need,” said company president Troy Jones. Meanwhile, he said he’s taken over 6,000 orders since Friday and is selling a liquid version until more pills become available.

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