Food, water, knowledge can help

March 17, 2011 

It is really remarkable how different people respond to disasters and emergencies.

Many of us have watched with sadness and horror at the great devastation and suffering experienced by those affected in Japan. People have asked about what they can do to help, many are also watching and waiting anxiously about the fate of the nuclear reactors and how events in Japan might affect the rest of the world.

After seeing this devastation, please make sure you are prepared if a similar disaster were to occur right here. Do you have enough food, water and supplies to keep you and your family safe and alive for days to weeks, until aid arrives?

In the past few days, a lot of information has been circulating about the medication potassium iodide (KI). People have been purchasing or attempting to purchase these tablets and find that there is no KI available. TREATMENT WITH POTASSIUM IODIDE IS NOT RECOMMENDED. Even if there were to be complete destruction of the nuclear facilities in Japan, no radiation exposure is expected in the United States. The federal nuclear regulatory commission, the International Atomic Energy agency, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Washington state are all participating in monitoring for any potential adverse effects from the emergency in Japan.

After a radiologic or nuclear event, public-health officials issue advisories if there is potential exposure. You may be advised to remain in your home, school or place of work (this is known as “shelter-in-place”) or to evacuate. Local public-health or emergency-management officials will tell the public if KI or other protective actions are needed. You also might be told not to eat some foods and not to drink some beverages until a safe supply can be brought in from outside the affected area. Following the instructions given to you by these authorities can lower the amount of radiation exposure you have.

KI is a stable compound that can protect only the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine, not other parts of the body. KI cannot protect the body against other radioactive elements; if radioactive iodine is not present, taking KI is not protective. KI does not stop radioactive iodine from entering the body, nor can it reverse the health effects caused by radioactive iodine once the thyroid has been damaged.

Some side-effects caused by KI include intestinal upset, allergic reactions (possibly severe), rashes and inflammation of the salivary glands. Infants less than one month old who receive more than one dose of KI are at particular risk for developing a condition known as hypothyroidism (thyroid hormone levels that are too low). Taking a higher dose of KI, or taking KI more often than recommended, does not offer more protection and can cause severe illness or death.

Take actions now to better prepare for emergencies. Go to www.doh.wa.gov/phepr/default.htm. Washington public-health advisories regarding events in Japan can be found at www.doh.wa.gov.

Dr. Diana T. Yu is the Thurston County Health officer.

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