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Iodide pill is hot commodity as nuclear concerns escalate

Two women cover their mouths against the threat of radiation at Yamada town in Iwate prefecture.

Updated Interview

CHIOTAKIS: The nuclear crisis in Japan has people as far away as the United States taking precautionary measures to stay safe.

Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman is with us live to talk about it. Good morning Mitchell.

MITCHELL HARTMAN: Hi Steve.

CHIOTAKIS: We're hearing people are buying up a lot of potassium iodide pills. Why?

HARTMAN: Well, if there's a significant radiation release and the plume reaches all the way across the Pacific, one of the nasty things riding those eastbound winds would be radioactive iodine. The human thyroid absorbs it, and it can cause cancer. Taking these potassium iodide pills can basically crowd out the radioactive form. But, it's not going to protect you from cesium and plutonium. And you shouldn't take it without a doctor's supervision.

CHIOTAKIS: Alright, so what's the real risk then, of radioactive contamination making it all the way to the U.S.?

HARTMAN: Well, Steve, the truth is, no one exactly knows. These reactors have multiple failures -- cooling, containment, fuel rods, spent fuel. I called up Dr. Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility this morning.

IRA HELFAND: This is a situation in which we are in totally uncharted territory, and I think we need to be concerned. Material that is released may to a significant degree blow eastward to the United States There obviously is a great distance between Japan and the West Coast of the United States.

So the question is would it be far enough? Brookhaven National Labs spun out a 'worst-case' scenario. Contamination spread 2,000 miles in their model. Here in Portland I'm like 5,000 miles from Japan. If a plume did make it here, we'd probably just all be told to stay indoors to minimize exposure.

CHIOTAKIS: Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman. Thanks.

HARTMAN: You're welcome.


Original Report

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: The nuclear crisis in Japan has people as far away as the U.S. taking precautionary measures to stay safe. Which means the medicine used to treat radiation poisoning, is now mostly sold out here at home.

Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman reports.


MITCHELL HARTMANN: It's not too surprising that some Americans are scrambling to protect themselves from nuclear contamination after news reports like this:

CBS NEWS ANCHOR: Japan's nuclear crisis is worsening and is now threatening public health. Last night another explosion rocked the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant and within hours radiation began spewing from the damaged reactors.

Since yesterday there's been a run on potassium iodide tablets from online suppliers in the U.S., and some have run out. Potassium iodide can help protect the body against radioactive iodine 131, one of the contaminants most likely to spread on wind blowing away from the damaged reactors.

IRA HELFAND: Working against the United States is the fact that the westerly winds do tend to be the most prevalent.

Dr. Ira Helfand is a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

HELFAND: And material that is released may to a significant degree blow eastward to the U.S. There obviously is a great distance between Japan and the West Coast of the U.S. But we did see at Chernobyl that when large amounts of radiation are released they can spread over a very large area.

There hasn't been a large radiation release so far, and none has reached the U.S. Helfand says potassium iodide should only be used under a doctor's supervision.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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