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Monday June 10, 2002 12:48:37 AM

Thousands line up to get potassium iodide pills


(Original publication: June 9, 2002)

YORKTOWN Nearly 3,000 people concerned about a possible terrorist attack or accident at the Indian Point nuclear power plants yesterday crowded a county giveaway of a pill that helps prevent thyroid cancer in the event of a nuclear emergency.

A steady stream of cars from slick luxury SUVs to weathered sedans rolled in and out of the Yorktown High School parking lot, as people flocked to the first of four days the county plans to distribute free potassium iodide, or KI. The pill protects the thyroid gland against exposure to radiation emitted in a nuclear disaster.

Families, elderly couples and even teen-agers formed an orderly and swift distribution line. After receiving the pills, many paused to join a line across the parking lot to sign a petition calling for the closing of Indian Point. The petition queue at times stretched 30 people deep.

Many of those picking up pills yesterday said they had become increasingly nervous about Indian Point since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Brian Sussman of Mohegan Lake held the hand of his two-and-a-half year-old son Jake in one hand and several KI tablets for his family in the other.

"It actually scares me more that they would do this," he said of the county's giveaway of the pills. "You gotta think if they go through all this trouble, they should close the plant."

Susan Tolchin, County Executive Andrew Spano's chief adviser, said yesterday the county was aware the giveaway could serve to stoke residents' fears about a nuclear emergency at the plant, but the county was obligated to do what it could to protect residents.

"If we did not do this, we would be totally irresponsible," she said.

The county initially is making the pill available to people who live within 10 miles of the Indian Point nuclear power plants in Buchanan as part of a program sponsored by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The pills will also be made available to schools in the 10-mile radius that request them. Other pills will be stockpiled in public locations throughout the county, Tolchin said.

There are 149,000 Westchester residents who live within a 10-mile radius of Indian Point, Tolchin said. The NRC provided the county with 340,000 pills.

Tony Sutton, deputy commissioner of the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services, said about 20 people were waiting at the high school when county officials arrived at 7:30 a.m. to set up the event, scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

About 2,617 people picked up about 10,533 pills by the time county officials wrapped up the event after 1 p.m., officials said.

Anti-Indian Point activists held signs and encouraged people to sign their petition urging the shutdown of the plant. Bill Primavera, organizer of the Yorktown Close Indian Point organization, said he handed out more than 1,000 fliers in the first two hours of the event.

"We're letting people know this is a Band-Aid," he said. "A pill is not the answer."

KI floods the thyroid with iodine and blocks the absorption of radioactive iodide, one of the gases released in a severe nuclear accident. It does not protect against other forms of radiation and is not meant as a substitute for taking shelter or evacuation.

Along with the pills, people were given a fact sheet on KI, which included recommended dosages.

Forty-six Westchester pharmacies listed on the county's Web site, also have agreed to carry the pills. Sutton said a sleeve of the pills should cost about $9.95.

County officials warned residents to be wary of pharmacies that might overcharge for the pills. Inspectors from the county's Department of Consumer Protection found one Westchester pharmacy Weinstein's on Katonah Avenue in Katonah was charging $75 for a sleeve of 14 tablets.

Harry Baumgarten, the pharmacy's owner, said yesterday the inflated price was due to a miscommunication with his distributor. He said he has contacted customers who were overcharged and refunded the difference, and is now charging $11.95 a sleeve, he said.

"I'm just sorry I have to be in a position to even sell the stuff," Baumgarten said.

The county's next distribution of KI is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Ossining High School.

Residents also can pick up pills June 23 at the Peekskill firehouse at 701 Washington St. and June 29 at Hendrick Hudson High School in Montrose.

Send e-mail to Michael Gannon

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