With radiation levels on the rise in the area immediately around Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactors, US officials have established monitoring points for radioactivity along the Pacific Coast. However, the message from local officials is that Californians should be prepared, but not alarmed.
The chief of LA county’s public health department, Dr. Jonathan Fielding, says he's heard the stories about people running to pharmacies looking for potassium iodide, a tablet that counteracts a radioactive isotope that the Japanese reactors could release. He's urging anyone who has that medicine not to take it unnecessarily.
“While it's usually benign, it can be harmful occasionally, especially to people who have allergies to iodide or shellfish and to those with skin disorders or thyroid problems,” says Fielding. “It can cause uncomfortable effects such as upset, nausea and rashes.”
Fielding says elevated radioactivity poses little risk in California now and so there's little need for those pills. A full meltdown or further release at the Japanese reactors could release several different isotopes and potassium iodide only protects against one of them. Even in that event, 4,000 miles of ocean current and wind pattern lie between the reactors and the west coast of the United States.
“If anything should change we would have a number of days notice,” says Fielding, “and that assumes a wind and that there's a plume and all kind of things we think are very, very unlikely.”
Fielding does stress preparation, but a different kind. He says people should know evacuation routes from their homes, schools, and offices, and should gather three days' worth of water and food, emergency supplies and important paperwork to be ready for this or any other environmental hazard.