Pills cause clash

Officials, advocates disagree over distribution of potassium iodide

Friday, Dec. 21, 2007

Pick up your dose

If you live within 10 miles of Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby, you can pick up doses of potassium iodide for yourself and your family from the Calvert County Health Department, on Hospital Road in Prince Frederick, from 8:30 to 10 a.m., or by prior arrangement before 5 p.m. on business days. The health department can be reached at 410-535-5400.

Two weeks ago, officials and activists at a public meeting in Prince Frederick clashed about the distribution of potassium iodide, a mineral that could help prevent thyroid cancer after radiation exposure in the event of an accident at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby.

Paul Gunter with the Takoma Park-based anti-nuclear organization Beyond Nuclear said the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Administration are violating a provision of the federal Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. The act requires the agencies to provide potassium iodide pills to all residents within a 20-mile radius of the plant.

Gunter said this leads him to believe that NRC and FEMA are ‘‘more interested in protecting the image of the nuclear industry than in protecting the public.”

But speaking after the meeting, Sharon Nazarek, supervisor of disease surveillance and response for the Calvert County Health Department, said potassium iodide doses are already available to those living within the required 10-mile radius of the plant. She said the department will be able to distribute them efficiently in an emergency.

‘‘If there was an identified [radiation] release and those people evacuated were potentially contaminated or had gone through contamination, the receiving center would be set up and the health department would bring the bulk supply of potassium iodide to the receiving center,” said Calvert County Emergency Management and Safety Division Chief Bobby Fenwick. ‘‘Now, if a person has evacuated prior to release, they cannot be contaminated. So there would be no need for potassium iodide if they were never exposed. But if there was exposure or potential exposure, they would be supplied the potassium iodide at the reception center.”

Residents of the 10-mile radius who want to have doses on hand in advance can also pick them up for themselves and their families from the health department, on Hospital Road in Prince Frederick, from 8:30 to 10 a.m., or by prior arrangement before 5 p.m. on business days.

The department has no way to give doses to those unable to come to the office during business hours, but a resident could have a friend or relative pick up a dose for him, or buy potassium iodide on the Internet, Nazarek said.

Public schools in the 10-mile radius keep potassium iodide stores for students and staff members, Nazarek said.

The availability of potassium iodide has not been officially announced or advertised but is explained on the department’s Web site, Nazarek said. Also, many Calvert residents already have potassium iodide tablets from a distribution held at Patuxent High School in Lusby on June 1, 2002, where 23,585 doses were distributed.

The most recent population data, from 2005, show there are 39,000 people within the 10-mile radius, up from 35,000 in 2000, according to Fenwick.

Fenwick said another mass distribution of potassium iodide is planned soon, to reach new residents and others who haven’t gotten doses. But Nazarek disagreed, saying no decision had been made, and that any distribution would be only a drill to prepare for an emergency.

‘‘We were contemplating the issue but we haven’t made a total decision yet. We were going to do it like an exercise but we really, really have to discuss that,” Nazarek said.

Nazarek and Fenwick also differ on communication strategies.

Fenwick said his department plans to hold public information meetings in the 10-mile radius to inform citizens of nuclear emergency measures, while Nazarek said she believes the department’s Web site information is sufficient.

‘‘So you can put it in the paper and let people know for us,” Nazarek said.

Nazarek and Fenwick both said a mass mailing of potassium iodide within the 10-mile radius is not under consideration.

Even with prompt and efficient distribution of potassium iodide during an emergency, damage could already be done before tablets can be distributed.

Speed is critical in taking potassium iodide, Calvert Memorial Hospital’s Director of Pharmacy Vince Jackson said. To be effective, it must be taken as quickly as possible after radiation exposure, if not before exposure begins. Potassium iodide works by blocking absorption by the thyroid of radioactive isotopes of iodine released during a nuclear disaster.

The longer after radiation exposure until potassium iodide is taken, the more time the thyroid will have had to absorb cancer-causing radioactive iodine, and the less effective potassium iodine will be.

Potassium iodide does not prevent or treat radiation poisoning.

‘‘This medicine does only protect your thyroid,” Nazarek said. ‘‘It’s not a miracle drug that’s going to save anyone from radiation exposure. It just saves your thyroid, which controls the functions of their body, and people have to listen to instructions” about when to take it.

Staffers at Beyond Nuclear did not immediately respond to requests for further comment.

But Allison Fisher, energy program organizer for consumer rights group Public Citizen said she suspects government officials intentionally downplay nuclear emergency preparedness measures to avoid alarming the public.

‘‘It’s not just a distance issue; it’s the fact that people are not aware of the service and I think in part that is a calculated effort by local officials to keep evacuation processes and these kinds of mitigation tactics away from the public so that they don’t associate the nuclear power plant that’s in their backyard with having an accident or having to use potassium iodide,” she said.

E-mail Erica Mitrano at emitrano@somdnews.com.