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Americans prepare despite no radiation threat from Japan

The FDA and a local health food storeowner are advising against buying potassium iodide in response to nearly nonexistent radiation from Japan.

After a 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan on March 11, a tsunami wreaked havoc on homes and lives, damaging pumps that circulate water to cool nuclear rods at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in northeastern Japan.

The aftermath of this nuclear threat has yielded a nationwide reevaluation of the safety of nuclear energy, including a hearing held Tuesday before the Arizona Corporation Commission to discuss safety plans for the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Wintersburg, Ariz.

The generating station, 55 miles west of downtown Phoenix, is the largest nuclear power plant in the U.S.

Trace amounts of Iodine-131 radiation from the Fukushima plant were detected on March 21 by the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency, but the amounts were miniscule — less than 0.1 millirems. The average American receives 360 millirems annually from natural causes. In other words, Americans face no danger of radiation from Japan.

“Radioactivity is all around us ... there’s radioactivity in the banana you eat, there’s radioactivity in just about everything because it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon,” said Kip Hodges, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU.

But in the past two weeks, sales of kelp and potassium iodide have surged as Americans attempt to counteract the effects of radiation from Japan. The website and an email for vitamin chain Hi-Health advertise a sale on potassium iodide under the tagline, “in the news.”

According to a consumer alert released by the Federal Trade Commission, potassium iodide should not be taken unless public health officials instruct people to do so.

“I’m worried for the people who are in the same area ... [but] realistically I don’t think it could affect me in the state where I’m located right now,” computer science junior Rebecca Bever said.

Potassium iodide, produced commonly in tablet form, is also present in kelp, and it can prevent thyroid cancer often developed from contamination with radioactive iodine, according to a consumer alert released by the Federal Trade Commission.

In an email, health physics professor Kenneth Mossman said that taking potassium iodide up to six hours after exposure to radioactive iodine prevents the absorption of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland (located in the neck). Because the body absorbs the iodine in potassium iodide, it prevents the radioactive iodine from getting in the thyroid and causing allergic reactions, nausea and vomiting.

But the consumption of too much potassium iodide can lead to an overactive thyroid, which can cause hypothyroidism or goiter, according to a report released by the FDA.

Vicki Greener, owner of Desert Sage Herbs, completely sold out of kelp in a matter of days. She added that she did not have potassium iodide in stock when the rush to buy it hit because so few people purchased it before then.

“Be careful of what people are reading, make sure you’re getting both sides of the story and make an educated decision for yourself because there’s always those people out there who are going to be in the fear mode,” Greener said.

Hodges explained that while the reactors at Fukushima were prepared for an earthquake, electric motors in pumps that circulated water to cool nuclear rods at the reactor core were damaged by water from the tsunami. Because of this damage, the rods began to heat up and approach meltdown temperatures.

Nuclear power plants prone to flooding face these same dangers, Hodges said; nobody could have been prepared for the tsunami that hit Japan. He added that plate tectonics in northwestern U.S. cities like Seattle resemble Japan’s and can cause a tsunami and earthquake of similar magnitude.

“There are some really good things to say about nuclear energy because it’s very clean,” Hodges said. “There are some really bad things to say, because when a disaster happens like this it puts a considerable population at risk if there was a major release of radiation.”

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