Radiation Fears Spread Throughout Western U.S.

With some 5,000 miles of Pacific Ocean between Japan and California, public health officials say there’s no reason for concern.
by | March 18, 2011

The phones won’t stop ringing at the California Department of Public Health, and anti-radiation pills are flying off shelves. Japan’s nuclear power plant crisis has triggered widespread panic in the western U.S., but public health officials say that even if dangerous material hits Pacific shores, the levels won’t be high enough to harm the health of U.S. residents.

When word spread that radioactivity could reach the West Coast as early as today, health officials began issuing updates and releasing information to help quell fears and stop people from taking unnecessary precautions – like popping potassium iodide pills. With some 5,000 miles of Pacific Ocean between Japan and California, most of the radiation will be dispersed, they say, so there’s no reason for concern.

“Everyone on the planet should be concerned about excess radiation entering the environment,” said Dr. Howard Backer, interim director of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) at a press conference yesterday. “We know the results of the nuclear bomb tests of the 50s and 60s. No one's happy about what's happening in Japan. But this radiation is going to end up for the most part in the water and the air, diluted.”

Western states, such as California, Oregon and Washington have been monitoring for radiation spikes from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was damaged by last week’s earthquake and tsunami. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reportedly is deploying extra, portable radiation monitors to outposts Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. These stations send real-time data via satellite. Through collaboration among the federal government, state agencies and local jurisdictions, public officials plan to deliver updates as necessary.

“We're continuing with the state and fed government to monitor the unfolding situation,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “Our equipment has become terribly sensitive, so we can detect things way below the potential for human harm. The fact that we can detect this does not mean it's problematic.”

But one potential problem comes from people taking potassium iodine pills, which can help prevent radioactive iodine from causing thyroid cancer. According to the AP, companies that make potassium iodide have been getting flooded with orders and calls from potential customers. But Backer said the tablets are not necessary for minimal radiation exposure, and in fact can cause problems.

“We’re concerned with people taking it that they’ll suffer side effects,” he said. “It is also a toxin in high doses. There is no benefit, but there is some risk.”

Even though U.S. public health officials say the radiation from Japan poses no threat to local health, they urge residents to direct their energy toward more productive disaster precautions, such as buying an emergency management kit and creating a disaster-preparedness plan.

“Radiation is one of those words that gets everybody scared and I think we have to debunk that and put it in the right context,” Fielding said. “This tragedy reminds us to be prepared for any emergency. We've had wildfires, floods, small tsunamis and earthquakes that we know are coming. It's really critical that everybody be prepared.”