Will Japanese Radiation Require Iodine Pills in the US?

The prospect of radiation from the Japanese nuclear disaster reaching the US on the Pacific Jet stream is no longer an academic issue. The New York Times reports this morning  the UN predicts a radiation plume might soon reach the west coast. The extent of radiation lofted in this cloud is unknown. Hopefully not much. Nuclear experts outside Japan are now saying the situation is much worse than the Japanese admit to and a second Chernobyl is seriously discussed.

Ed Markey, he Massachusetts Democrat who is ranking member of the House Natural Resources committee, and the most knowledgeable and outspoken member of Congress on nuclear energy matters, has asked the government to get ready for an emergency.

  Markey sent a letter to Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s Director, Office of Science & Technology Policy on Tuesday. “The Japanese nuclear crisis is already worse than the Three Mile Island accident and is clearly the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.  Japan reportedly is now distributing KI to its citizens,” he wrote, “We should not wait for a catastrophic accident at or a terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor in this country to occur to implement this common-sense emergency preparedness measure.” Yesterday he asked HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to get involved:

The essential value of distributing potassium iodide in preparation for a potential nuclear disaster has been abundantly clear for more than 30 years,” wrote Rep. Markey in the letter to Secretary Sebelius “The exercise of Presidential power to distribute KI is now long overdue, leaving many Americans living near these plants needlessly at risk, as sadly evidenced by the disaster in Japan.”

   Obama (and Bush before him) has so far taken no steps to issue iodine pills.

Hopefully the Japanese situation can be brought under control. But if not and we have another Chernobyl, what can we learn from that horrendous experience. While the cancer rates were not as high as predicted following that accident, they were substantial. Yesterday Laurie Garrett, the former excellent science reporter at Newsday who now works at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained in a briefing paper:

“ In 2006, a multi-agency panel of UN experts estimated that two hundred thousand square miles of Eastern Europe were blanketed with fallout, five million residents of the area were exposed, and one hundred thousand people continue to receive radiation contamination from their food and environment that is above normal background levels. (See Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and Their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience, published by the IAEA in 2006.)’’

Later in her paper, Garrett writes as follows:

  • The clearest evidence of Chernobyl impact on human health was damage to the thyroid gland, a crucial hormone-producing organ located by the esophagus, which absorbs iodine. Radioactive iodine was a key component of Chernobyl fallout, and along the path of that grim extrusion are today thousands of deaths as well as ailing adults who were children in 1986. Distribution of prophylactic iodine–which saturates the organ’s receptors, blocking attachment by radioactive forms of the element–was slow under the Soviets after the Chernobyl incident. The 2006 IAEA analysis found this mistake fatal for many, because thyroid uptake of radioactive iodides was very rapid, saturating the organ within days.

Thirteen years after the Chernobyl disaster, the incidence of pediatric thyroid cancer is fifty-two times the region’s pre-1986 level. In Belarus, where the fallout blew, it was 113 times higher than the country’s pre-1986 diagnosed incidence of thyroid cancer. In the immediate area surrounding Chernobyl, the incidence of pediatric and adult thyroid cancer remains the highest found anywhere in the world, more than 500 times the pre-1986 levels for the region and an order of magnitude higher than anything ever seen in any other location on earth, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The rate of thyroid diseases–including non-cancer conditions such as Graves and Hashimoto’s dysfunctions–is extraordinary. Fourteen years after the accident, thyroid diseases of various kinds were diagnosed in these Ukrainians at a rate of about one per three thousand local residents annually.

  Researchers at the Institute of Experimental Physiology in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, have diagnosed a range of immune system and blood disorders among most of the estimated seven hundred thousand people who were children in 1986, exposed to significant fallout. Harvard scientists estimate the leukemia rates in this population are about 50 percent higher than what has been diagnosed among comparable Ukrainians not exposed to the fallout. 

As a footnote to all this, it is worth noting the Obama administration’s stance to date on iodine pills. As Markey explains it:

Rep. Markey amended the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 to make potassium iodide available to state and local governments to meet the needs of all persons living within a 20 mile radius of a nuclear power plant. However, the Bush administration chose to ignore these provisions and declined to implement them, thereby denying communities access to stockpiles of KI.
 In December 2009, Rep. Markey wrote President Obama urging him to move forward with full implementation of the provisions. However, Dr. Holdren’s office wrote Rep. Markey in July of last year upholding the Bush administration’s position. Because of this action, citizens living within the 10 mile radius of nuclear power plants in some states have KI stockpiled for an accident, but others do not and those living out to the 20 mile radius do not receive KI.

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