WASHINGTON – Maryland officials who distributed potassium iodide tablets to residents near nuclear power plants reached twice as many people as they had hoped to last year, but there is still room for improvement, they said Friday.
About 20 percent of the 85,000 people who live within 10 miles of the Calvert Cliffs or Peach Bottom, Pa., nuclear power plants got potassium iodide tablets when the state made them available through local health departments last spring.
The response was even better in Calvert County, where officials estimate that 33 percent of the 35,000 people in the target population got the tablets, which can protect a person’s thyroid gland from some kinds of radiation.
But the pills are only one part of a health response to any nuclear event, said Michael Sharon, chief of the Emergency Response Division of the Maryland Department of the Environment. If residents do not have the pills and find themselves in a nuclear event, they should focus on leaving the area first, he said.
“What we really want for them (residents in danger) is to evacuate,” Sharon said. “The thyroid is only one gland.”
The pills were purchased by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and distributed months after the 9-11 terror attacks. In Maryland, the pills were delivered to Calvert, Dorchester, St. Mary’s, Harford and Cecil counties, which then made them available to residents through local schools and health departments.
Area residents were invited to come by and pick up their dosages of potassium iodide — two pills a person — and talk to health personnel about nuclear exposure to the thyroid. Residents could also pick up the pills from local health offices.
Sharon said the number of people who came out to get the tablets was pretty good considering the fact that “We had nothing budgeted” for the distribution. While the NRC provided the tablets, it did not pay for distribution. Calvert County alone spent about $13,000 on the program.
Using public schools was the “best way” to get the pills out, said David Rogers, the health officer for Calvert County. Because Calvert has a relatively small health department, he said, “we had to find a way to even out that workload.” Having a central distribution point allowed the department to do that.
He also said that the schools allowed the county to target families with children, who are especially vulnerable to thyroid damage after radiation exposure.
Potassium iodide tablets help protect the thyroid gland after certain radiation exposures. Hormones from the thyroid help regulate energy and metabolism.
The Department of Homeland Security says on its web site that potassium iodide “may or may not protect your thyroid gland” in the event of a significant radiation threat. But an American Thyroid Association statement said that potassium iodide is “an essential adjunct to evacuation, sheltering and avoiding contaminated food, milk and water.”
Maryland officials plan to continue distributing potassium iodide in the future, Sharon said, and will work to better get the word out. In the meantime, tablets are available at local health agencies, he said.
While potassium iodide will protect people after some kinds of nuclear events, such as a power plant leak, it will probably not protect against the effects of a dirty bomb, said Andre Bouville, a radiation physicist at the National Cancer Institute.
He said there is “a very small possibility” that such a bomb would use radioactive iodine, the kind that potassium iodide tablets guard against.
A spokeswoman for Calvert Cliffs said the plant supports the pill distribution. But she also said the pills would probably never be needed.
“It’s very unlikely that an emergency would ever happen,” said Elleen Kane, adding that there are multiple barriers between the plant’s radioactive materials and the public.