NEW YORK — Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant still reels from the aftermath of March 11's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the 46-foot-high wall of water that smashed into it 15 minutes later. While electricity finally has been restored to the reactors, mysterious plumes of smoke occasionally rise above the facility, sometimes sending workers scrambling for safety when radiation peaks to dangerous levels.
Such scenes have prompted some Americans to buy potassium iodide (chemical symbol: KI), a generally benign substance that fills the thyroid and prevents it from absorbing carcinogenic radioactive iodine-131. While the Japanese radiation that has reached U.S. shores remains unthreatening, government officials correctly discourage Americans from taking KI pills.
Nonetheless, President Barack Obama prescribed passivity when he said last week that "public-health experts do not recommend people in the U.S. take precautionary measures beyond staying informed." Instead, officials should encourage Americans calmly to purchase KI tablets to shield themselves from the potential repercussions of a worst-case, multiple-reactor meltdown in Japan, as well as domestic risks.
The federal government keeps KI in the Strategic National Stockpile. (States with nuclear plants have internal supplies.) If Americans suddenly need KI, the government is supposed to swing into action and furnish it straight away. This essentially is the model that thrived during 2005's Hurricane Katrina and 2009's swine-flu vaccine shortage.
Imagine that a major quake and tsunami slammed into the San Onofre nuclear station in Southern California with Fukushima results or worse. How quickly could Uncle Sam or Uncle Jerry Brown hand people KI capsules amid confusion, casualties, collapsed bridges, aftershocks, incoming waves and widespread panic? What if first responders balked at driving KI pills into a radioactive hot zone? Cops, soldiers and firefighters usually are immeasurably brave. But their willingness to die should not be an organizational assumption.
If al-Qaida detonated a so-called "dirty" bomb at Manhattan's Grand Central Station, will President Barack Slowbama or Mayor Michael Snowstorm Bloomberg get me my KI pills more quickly than it would take radioactive iodine to travel 1.6 miles to my apartment?
Meanwhile, try to perform this vital service amid a public labor dispute. Picture Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., trying to rally government workers to drop their picket signs and distribute KI during a radiological incident.
Given government's multifarious failures, it makes far more sense to persuade manufacturers to produce and consumers to buy KI pills. Rather than stockpile them in secret government warehouses, Americans should stockpile them in their medicine chests. If they are unneeded, they will gather dust across their five-year shelf lives. After that, every American can spend $29.95 for 14 130-mg pills (14 doses) and store them between the Advil and the Alka-Seltzer.
In the event of an actual emergency, people could walk 10 or 20 feet to their medicine chests, pop their KI pill, and gird themselves against thyroid cancer.
KI works best two hours before or up to four hours after exposure to radioactive iodine. The goal of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is to transport KI from an undisclosed location to central distribution points in affected states within 12 hours. State authorities then will redistribute these supplies to local authorities. Why follow this pathetic timetable when a stroll to the medicine cabinet does the same thing, while saving 11 hours and 59 minutes?
All of this said, Americans should treat KI with caution. While normally inert, it can hurt those who are allergic to iodine or shellfish and those who suffer some skin ailments, renal disease and thyroid conditions. KI can induce nausea, rashes, swollen salivary glands and other allergic responses.
Rather than pop KI pills like M&Ms while watching the terrifying and tragic scenes broadcast from Japan, Americans should wait until medical professionals urge them to swallow those tablets — most likely due to homegrown woes, rather than this distant and heart-wrenching nightmare.
So, pass the potassium iodide! But don't take it until public-health officials or your doctors so advise.
Deroy Murdock a Scripps Howard News Service columnist and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. Email him at deroy.Murdock@gmail.com