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Radiation fears brings increased sale of tablets, Geiger counters

NBC's Robert Bazell separates fear from reality of radiation exposure in the aftermath of the Japanese reactor incidents.

You don't have to be part of the tinfoil hat set to be concerned about radiation in the wind from Japan blowing to the West Coast. What's happening is frightening, but so far, experts are saying that winds will carry whatever contamination there is from Japan's nuclear reactors out to the Pacific Ocean without it reaching other countries, including the United States and Canada.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Sunday it doesn't expect "any harmful levels" of radiation to reach the nation's shores, and Canadian officials have said the situation doesn't appear to pose a health threat on that nation's Pacific Coast, either.

In a statement, the NRC said, "Given the thousands of miles between the two countries, Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity."

Still, there are those who do not believe and do not trust, and want to take whatever precautions they can. For some, it means buying potassium iodide tablets, or perhaps even seeking out Geiger counters, those 1950s-style devices that measure radiation.

"Iodide is selling very well in our health and personal care category," said a spokeswoman for Amazon.com on Monday. One brand, Life Extension potassium iodide tablets, 'is our top seller and just sold out this morning."

The pack of 14 tablets goes for a little under $8.

Geiger counters were also popular sellers in recent days. "Over the weekend, we did see spikes in Geiger counters and emergency preparedness kits like this one," said another Amazon.com spokesperson.

Karla Clark of Seattle, posted a discussion thread on Facebook to get people talking about what to do and how to prepare for a worst-case scenario should the winds blow radiation to the West Coast. And she e-mailed 200 of her friends about it.

"I have some concern over the possible fallout that could come from a meltdown of Japanese reactors," she wrote in the e-mail. "You are all really smart people and I am very interested in community emergency" preparation.

One of the Geiger counters available for sale on eBay.

Clark says she simply wants "our neighborhoods to be set up to handle a real emergency; I don't think we're there yet." She also does not have "much faith in our mainstream media to give us the real info," she said in an e-mail interview.

Geiger counters, which measure radiation, can be had on eBay, but in the wrong hands (which means most of ours) may be an ineffective tool. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission notes in a lesson plan for teachers that when you use a Geiger counter to determine how radioactive a substance is, you need to know what the background radiation level is so that you don't add that count to the reading of the substance you are testing. It's unlikely most of us are that expert.

If you want to learn more about radiation and iodide tablets, a good place to start is at the Centers for Disease Control web site. Among the information it has about potassium iodide:

  • "Potassium iodide (KI) should only be taken in a radiation emergency that involves the release of radioactive iodine, such as an accident at a nuclear power plant or the explosion of a nuclear bomb. A 'dirty bomb' most likely will not contain radioactive iodine."
  • "A person who is internally contaminated with radioactive iodine may experience thyroid disease later in life. The thyroid gland will absorb radioactive iodine and may develop cancer or abnormal growths later on. KI will saturate the thyroid gland with iodine, decreasing the amount of harmful radioactive iodine that can be absorbed."
  • "KI only protects the thyroid gland and does not provide protection from any other radiation exposure."
  • "Some people are allergic to iodine and should not take KI. Check with your doctor about any concerns you have about potassium iodide."

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