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Cancer-defense pills ready . . . and waiting


Susan Jaffe
Plain Dealer Reporter

They're free, but the federal government can't even give them away.

Not a single state has formally accepted the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's offer last month of free potassium iodide pills.

The tablets can protect people living near nuclear power plants from thyroid cancer in the event of an accidental radiation release.

Ohio officials are still mulling over the gift, after the NRC finally made good on a year-old promise to purchase the pills for about 3 million Americans living within 10 miles of the nation's 103 nuclear power plants. The agency allocated $800,000 for the pills shortly after the Food and Drug Administration announced new dosage guidelines for children and adults.

The state's Utility Radiological Safety Board decided yesterday to hold public meetings near each of the three nuclear plants in or near Ohio to solicit suggestions from local health and emergency management officials as well as from interested residents.

About 200,000 people in Ohio live within 10 miles of the Davis-Besse plant in Port Clinton, the Perry plant in North Perry and the Beaver Valley plant just over the border in Pennsylvania. FirstEnergy Corp., which owns the plants, has said the chance of a radiation release is slim.

The forums will be held sometime before the board's April meeting, said Jay Carey, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health.

"No decision has been made to participate, but we are moving in that direction," he said.

The problem is that along with the pills come responsibilities and subsequent expenses. Any state that accepts the pills must agree to store and distribute them and submit a plan for doing so to the NRC. That job could cost more than the pills, he said.

"There are a lot of details," Carey said. "It's not something you just do."

The Health Department would have to decide whether to distribute the pills before an emergency, give them during a radiation release or some combination of the two.

There's also a need to tell people what the pills can and cannot do. They can only protect against one of dozens of radioactive elements that could be released during an accident and must be taken within a few hours of exposure.

"If people think they can just take this pill and not have to evacuate, they're wrong," Carey said.

Lake and Ottawa counties already provide the pills to emergency workers and those who cannot be easily evacuated, such as nursing home residents and prisoners.

The sale of potassium iodide pills over the Internet has increased along with worries about nuclear safety following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Sharon Johnson of North Ridgeville keeps three bottles of potassium iodide pills in her family's first aid kit.

"I think everyone should have them, especially with what's going on in the Middle East," she said. "And who knows when there's going to be an accident?"

Contact Susan Jaffe at:, 216-999-4822

© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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