January 21, 2002
In Shadow of Reactors, Parents Seek
Peace of Mind in a Pill
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
N.Y., Jan. 17 If the Indian Point nuclear plants spew radiation from an
accident or terrorist attack, at least one child in Westchester County is
He is Jacob Tinkhauser, 8, and his protection comes courtesy of his mother,
Robin, who, emboldened by reports of the effectiveness of potassium iodide
against radiation- induced thyroid cancer, has delivered a supply of the
over-the-counter drug to her son's elementary school and given staff members
permission to administer the drug to her son.
"You have to be cautious and prepare," Ms. Tinkhauser said. Or as
Jacob, a third grader, put it, "I'll be safe."
Four months ago, Ms. Tinkhauser was only dimly aware of the nuclear plants,
which are about 12 miles from her home, leaving both her home and her son's
school outside the 10-mile evacuation zone mandated by federal guidelines in
the case of a major radiation leak. She had never heard of potassium iodide,
known by its chemical symbol KI.
But since Sept. 11, a KI fever has settled in, touching not only parents in
communities across New York's northern suburbs, but people across the country
living anywhere near nuclear plants. A number of school district officials, in
response to parents' concerns about reactors' vulnerability to sabotage, are
studying the feasibility of acquiring and distributing the drug to children,
who are more susceptible to thyroid problems in the event of exposure to
radiation. New York and New Jersey state officials met last week to consider
applying for a federal program that would provide a stockpile of the drug for
people living near nuclear plants; officials in Connecticut are also studying
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York
Robin Tinkhauser gave her son's elementary school
in Chappaqua, N.Y., a supply of potassium iodide to give him in case of a
Manufacturers and vendors of the drug, meanwhile, report that business is
A large sign outside the Healthy Choice Apothecary here declares: "KI,
potassium iodide, available here," and Jacques Saisselin, the store
manager, said he had sold the drug to a steady stream of customers.
The tiny white pills are ideally taken before exposure to radiation, but
they proved effective in blocking thyroid cancer when given to people within
hours of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion in 1986. It saturates the
thyroid gland with iodide, preventing the body from absorbing any radioactive
iodide. When nuclear reactors split atoms, one of the fragments is a highly
radioactive form of iodide.
But with the movement to stockpile the drug, normally readily available to
nuclear plant workers and emergency officials, has come debate over whether the
drug is a more of a balm for political and public pressure to do something
about plant safety. Some authorities fear that people will see the drug as a
panacea and that its widespread distribution could give people a false sense of
security and hamper necessary evacuations.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced last month that it had set aside
$800,000 over two years to distribute the drug free to the 31 states with nuclear
The agency is negotiating with drug manufacturers, but hopes the money will
cover the cost of six million pills, which would be designated for people
living within 10 miles of nuclear plants. The N.R.C.'s allotment would cover
each person for about two days, by which time most people would have been
evacuated from contaminated areas, federal officials say.
Both the N.R.C. and the Food and Drug Administration emphasize that the
drug, which has a shelf life of about five years, should supplement and not
replace any evacuation plans.
Two states, Massachusetts and Maryland, are already asking for the pills.
(Four states have their own stockpiles Tennessee, Alabama, New Hampshire and
But officials in at least three states Georgia, Illinois and Florida
have raised misgivings about the N.R.C. program, noting that potassium iodide
does not guard against many other forms of radiation and may discourage people
In Illinois, which has 11 reactors, more than any other state, officials
said their evacuation and sheltering plans would make widespread distribution
of potassium iodide moot, but, as in the other states, no final decision has
been made on signing up for the N.R.C.'s pills.
"Does this provide an enhancement to the protection of the
public?" said Mike Sinclair of the state's Department of Nuclear Safety.
"From our perspective it does not. But that may not be true in other
He added: "We're concerned people will misunderstand the use of KI and
believe they are getting a level of protection that is not there. `'
New York officials have raised similar concerns.
"This is not the silver bullet," said Donald Maurer, a spokesman
for New York State's Emergency Management Office. "This is not the
ultimate form of protection. We still believe keeping the plants working safely
is the best prevention, and evacuation and shelter is the best way of
protecting folks in that 10- mile zone."
Antinuclear groups have charged that the reluctance to distribute the drug
stems from the belief that to do so would imply that the plants are not as safe
as claimed by regulators and the industry. The authorities say that while they
regard the plants as generally safe, they cannot overlook post-Sept. 11 anxiety
and public pressure to consider this option.
"Some call it a reversal of policy, but to us it is a natural next step
in a changed world," said Roseanne Pawelec, a spokeswoman for the health
department in Massachusetts, which had initially resisted the drug until the
Bills in Congress would expand the program to benefit people in a 50- mile
radius of nuclear plants, which would include New York City.
But some people cannot wait, fretting that in a disaster it may be hard to
get the pills.
Nukepills.com, an Internet supplier of the drug under the commercial name
Iosat, said thousands of orders for its $9.95 kit with 14 tablets have rushed
in since the attacks. Many come from the New York City area, where questions
have been raised about the adequacy of evacuation plans for the Indian Point
plants, 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan.
Getting the pills, however, may be easier than distributing them.
Tennessee, for instance, makes them available at local health department
offices, but just 5 percent of the people eligible for them have picked them
up, said Dr. Ruth Agstrom, who heads the program for the Tennessee Department
And school officials say distribution could prove difficult, especially in
the chaos of an evacuation. Only one of Chappaqua's five schools, Westorchard
Elementary, lies within the 10-mile planned evacuation zone, but the
authorities could still order one if winds blow radiation toward Chappaqua, and
school officials predict that parents would descend on all of the schools in an
Generally, medicines can be given to students only if accompanied by a
doctor's note. Even if all 4,000 students in the district had such notes,
officials would need extra nurses or staff members trained to administer the
drug properly. And James Donovan, the superintendent of schools here, said
there were no guidelines on how they would decide when to give the drug.
"The infrastructure in the schools is not there for mass
distribution," said Dr. Donovan, who is awaiting guidance from county and
state health authorities. The Board of Education plans to discuss the matter on
Side effects are rare, but they generally include rashes and nausea, and
often occur when higher than recommended doses are taken.
Advocates for stockpiling potassium iodide say the public can learn to use
the drug correctly, just as with aspirin or a fire extinguisher. And they
dismiss the notion that people would just pop their KI pills and refuse to
leave in a nuclear emergency.
"We have a lot of emergency protective devices in the house," Ms.
Tinkhauser said. "I would not stay in the house if it was on fire just
because I have a fire extinguisher. You protect the part of the body that you
can and you leave the area."
INFORMATION, DATA, AND MATERIAL CONTAINED, PRESENTED, OR PROVIDED HERE IS FOR
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KNOWLEDGE OR OPINIONS OF THE PUBLISHER, AND IS NOT TO BE CONSTRUED OR INTENDED
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