Bitter Pill

Photo by Mike McGillIn a more reasonably paranoid world, what San Diego County anti-nuclear activist Patricia Borchmann wants would already be standard U.S. government policy: everyone living within 10 miles—maybe even 100 miles —of a nuclear-power plant would have access to an anti-radiation pill known as potassium iodide (KI). KI would be stockpiled at nearby military bases, government buildings and local high schools. People living next door to a plant like the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) would have a case of the pills at their bedside just in case the emergency broadcasting system on radio and TV announced that a quick-moving cloud of radioactive iodine was heading their way. In that horrifying eventuality, they would take the pill with a glass of water, temporarily blocking their thyroid gland's ability to absorb radioactive iodine.

For the past year, Borchmann has petitioned pharmacies in San Diego and Orange counties to carry KI. According to an article last month in San Diego's North County Times, she was close to achieving her goal. But since then, Borchmann's campaign has gone nowhere.

“I was really disappointed because when that article was published, I was working with a local pharmacist who was interested in getting a supply of KI by the end of the year,” Borchmann said. “Now he tells me that he hasn't gotten any demand for it.”

“He” is Oceanside pharmacist John Ahearn, who confirmed in a separate interview with the Weekly that he now thinks getting pharmacies to stockpile KI “would just be a waste of time.”

In August, another backer of KI distribution, Mission Viejo resident Betty Geismar, sent letters to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Southern California Edison (SCE), whose parent company operates SONGS. Geismar pleaded with both to speed the distribution of potassium iodide; both replied that it is up to the state of California to do the stockpiling.

“In California, KI would be issued at the direction and by authorization of the responsible affected county health officer, but the state of California does not endorse or recommend predistribution of KI to the general public due to the potential for misadministration and the logistics associated with distribution,” wrote SCE.

“If you wish to have a personal supply of KI, it is recommended that you first consult with a physician,” the NRC responded. “He/she would be able to provide you with important information regarding its use.”

Indeed, the NRC recently allowed states to develop their own KI policies. But California emergency planning officials have yet to stockpile, distribute or even publicize the pills (see “Prescription for Disaster,” Jan. 29, 1999). This is in part because state and federal emergency officials have yet to determine who will pay the massive cost of distributing the medicine in populated areas—such as Orange County—around nuclear reactors.

In Sacramento, there's even resistance to the idea. Officials with the California Department of Health Services insist that stockpiling or distributing KI pills might provide a false sense of security to those who reside near nuclear reactors. Instead of taking an anti-radiation pill following a nuclear disaster at SONGS, state officials suggest that residents either hide in their houses with the windows closed or simply flee for the hills.

Complicating Borchmann's mission to popularize KI is the fact that the pills only protect against radioactive iodine, just one of dozens of lethal compounds that could leak from a ruptured nuclear plant. What's more, some people are allergic to KI and can become seriously ill if they take the drug. Worse still, unless the pill is taken within moments of contamination, it is unlikely to provide any protection at all.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that potassium iodide tablets have historically proven benefits when it comes to coping with a major nuclear incident. After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, thyroid cancer rates skyrocketed almost everywhere within 500 miles of the nuclear plant—except Poland, which had stockpiled KI and was therefore able to administer the drug quickly to millions of people who had been exposed to radioactive iodine. The result: Poland saw no large increase in thyroid cancer between 1986 and 1995, while elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the death rate from the disease jumped sevenfold, killing hundreds of people, most of them women and children.

“I think there is a demand for these pills,” Borchmann insists. “The reason people aren't asking for them is that this issue hasn't gotten as much publicity as it deserves. The more exposure that is extended on this issue, the more people will understand and demand these pills.”

While pharmacies won't be stockpiling the medicine any time soon, the pills can be ordered over the phone from Bernard Jensen Products of Solana Beach (800-755-4027).

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