Potassium Iodide Sales Spike Following Quake

Photo: Kai Vetter, UC Berkeley associate professor-in-residence and staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, shows equipment used to test radiation levels in water and air.
Rashad Sisemore/Photo
Kai Vetter, UC Berkeley associate professor-in-residence and staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, shows equipment used to test radiation levels in water and air.


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When Gene Bernardi asked her doctor two weeks ago if he would prescribe her potassium iodide, he laughed. Bernardi, a Berkeley resident, said she wanted a way to protect against radioactive iodine, but her doctor advised against taking the medicine.

However, Bernardi, like many in the city, was still concerned about radiation in the Bay Area - from the plume of radioactive particles released by Japan's nuclear reactors that were damaged in the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami - although officials maintain that levels of radiation are very low and harmless.

Kai Vetter, UC Berkeley associate professor-in-residence of nuclear engineering,who installed a monitor on the roof of Etcheverry Hall, said that even at the highest levels measured, a person would have to breathe that air for 2,000 years to be exposed to the same amount of radiation that one would experience from a cross-country flight.

"You should not be worried about your dog going out and drinking some rainwater - he will not light up," he said about the rain that fell on the few days with the highest measurements about two weeks ago. "He will be just fine."

Vetter and his colleagues insist that the only reason these increased levels can be detected at all is because of the monitor's extreme sensitivity - he said it can detect radioactive particles on a passerby who has just had a medical procedure. But Berkeley residents' fears do not seem fully assuaged, as numerous pharmacies around the city have experienced their highest sales of potassium iodide ever following the crisis in Japan.

"It's gone through the roof," said Aaron Murdock, manager of Lhasa Karnak Herb Company, a small apothecary on Telegraph Avenue. "We sold out, and then we sold out again."

Seventy bottles were purchased from the store within six days, he said. The first batch sold out March 14, three days after the tsunami, and the second on March 18.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises taking the drug - which is taken up by the thyroid, blocking the absorption of radioactive iodide - only during emergencies. And while neither the city's Public Health Division nor the campus University Health Services nor the Bay Area Air Quality Management District reported a risk to residents at any time, many stores in Berkeley sold out of potassium iodide, and some found that even their suppliers had none left.

"We can measure it at extreme low levels, but just because you can measure something doesn't mean it's dangerous," said epidemiologist Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. "This is far below anything that could possibly be considered dangerous, much below the natural radiation dosages."

Smith warned against taking potassium iodide - which comes in both tablet and liquid form - noting its milder side effects, like rashes and nausea, and more serious ones like allergic reactions.

"You don't want to take medication unless you need to," he said. "The side effects as well are low probability, but why put yourself through that if there is no benefit?"

But Bernardi said she is concerned that there is no safe dose of radiation. Because many stores had already sold out of potassium iodide just days after the tsunami, she bought different kinds of seaweed - dried, fresh, and in multivitamin form - which naturally contain iodine.

The plume, however, contains several different particles - iodine-131, tellurium-132, cesium-134 and cesium-137 - and potassium iodide only helps stave off the first. But Vetter and Smith agree the levels reaching Berkeley are so low that no preventative measures need to be taken at all.

"They are really small amounts," Vetter said. "If you look up and get a few drops of rain water in your mouth, don't worry - the amount of radiation through that is really nothing to worry about."

Tags: CITY OF BERKELEY, JAPAN, RADIATION, POTASSIUM IODIDE, ETCHEVERRY HALL


Soumya Karlamangla is the lead environment reporter. Contact her at [email protected]



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