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Fear of nuclear fallout prompts search for potassium iodide pills

South Whidbey pharmacies are fielding a frenzy of frantic telephone calls from residents searching for potassium iodide pills to protect themselves from radioactive fallout from Japan’s crippled nuclear-power plants.

Island Drug in Clinton has gotten roughly 20 calls for the tablets, and Linds in Freeland received about a half-dozen calls on Monday, employees at the pharmacies said.

Neither pharmacy has potassium iodide tablets in stock, and a worker at Island Drug said all of its wholesalers were also out of the drug.

Health officials at the local and national level said U.S. residents are not at risk of harm from the release of radioactive materials from nuclear facilities in Japan, four of which were severely damaged during last week’s devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

Officials said the radioactive releases will be diluted by distance and the wind, and significant exposure in the U.S. is not expected.

Residents near the damaged reactors in Japan have been evacuated and have been given potassium iodide — used to block uptake of radioiodide in the thyroid gland — and the U.S. Navy on Monday ordered its ships and aircraft away from Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant after low-level contamination was detected in the air and on 17 crew members from three U.S. helicopters working as part of the disaster relief effort. At the time, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which includes a Prowler squadron from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, was 100 miles northeast of the power plant.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency and the Washington State Department of Health have both said that harmful levels of radiation are not expected on the West Coast.

The assurances of health experts have not calmed fallout fears, however.

Rod Stallman, a pharmacist at Linds in Freeland, said he’s personally handled a couple of the calls, including one from his sister, from people looking for potassium iodide. One customer had harsh words for Stallman when he told her the pharmacy could not fulfill requests for potassium iodide.

“It seems kind of crazy,” Stallman said. “We’re 10,000 miles away.”

“The [health] risk from the drug has to be greater than the risk of the fallout,” he added.

The Island County Public Health Department is monitoring the situation in Japan, and federal and state agencies have been watching radiation levels.

Dan Baker, an employee at Economy Self Storage near Ken’s Korner, said he has been checking radiation levels with his own monitor in the past several days.

Baker noted that some have been concerned that the jet stream may carry radioactive material to the West Coast, but said he has not seen a significant increase in readings.

Though the detector has a needle-graph display, he said he listens to the “tick-tick-tick” signals more than watching the dial.

There’s been slight upticks recently.

“Normally it will go ‘click,’ then ‘click’ maybe five seconds later. Now it’s clicking about every two seconds or three seconds.”

Baker was quick to say that the readings weren’t high, and truly unremarkable given what he’d seen in Eastern Washington, where background data was perhaps four times higher.

The most recent reading was about twice the level he’d seen three or four days ago, and still well within the safe range.

“It’s up a little bit from what it was a couple days ago,” he said.

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