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Internet seller NukePills.com donated 50,000 potassium iodide tablets to a physician-run disaster-relief team in Japan, pills not suitable for U.S. retail sale because of packaging issues and expiration dates. Regardless, "these pills really needed to go where people were in the most dire need," said company president Troy Jones. Meanwhile, he said he's taken over 6,000 orders since Friday and is selling a liquid version until more pills become available.
What does this drug do?
Potassium iodide, a salt also known as KI, has just one use: It shields the thyroid from radioactive iodine. It blocks no other type of radiation, and protects no other body part.
The drug, either pill or liquid form, is sold over-the-counter and is considered safe, although some people may experience allergic reactions.
Potassium iodide is most important for children and pregnant women, because a growing thyroid is much more active and more likely to absorb radioactive iodine, said Columbia's Redlener. It should be given within a few hours of radiation exposure -- but isn't considered that useful for people over age 40.
At the same time, the crisis renews a question that the U.S. government has debated for years: Should people keep small supplies of potassium iodide on hand in case of a local radiation emergency?
The federal government already stockpiles the drug, and offers enough for states also to keep on hand to treat every resident within 10 miles of a nuclear reactor. About 22 states have requested or received some of those doses, and localities periodically offer free supplies for nearby residents to store themselves.
But radiation health specialists debate whether a 10-mile radius is big enough -- and whether people should store their own. Some are pushing the Obama administration to reconsider. Obama health officials wouldn't comment Tuesday.
"My feeling is I would have every household within of a plant have it in their medicine cabinet," said Redlener, adding that the Japan crisis illustrates the difficulty of getting pills from a central warehouse to panicked people during an emergency.
Even on the East Coast, some health departments reported increased interest from power-plant neighbors Tuesday: A Pennsylvania hotline that normally gets five to 10 calls a week about storing the pills has fielded 85 such inquiries in the past two days.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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