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Surgeon general clarifies position on potassium iodide as protection against nuclear radiation

March 16, 2011 | 12:08 pm

A spokeswoman for the U.S. surgeon general has clarified her position on whether people should stock up on potassium iodide as protection against nuclear radiation from Japan.

Click to learn more about the effects of radiation Potassium iodide, or KI, can prevent the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During a visit Tuesday to California, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin appeared to contradict the message from other public health officials that the pills are unnecessary and may have harmful side effects.

"It's a precaution," Benjamin told a Bay Area NBC reporter during a tour of a local hospital.

Benjamin, who rebuilt her Gulf Coast clinic after Hurricane Katrina, framed her comment within the broad context of disaster preparedness.

"We can't be over-prepared -- we learned that with 9/11, we learned that with Katrina and we learned that this week with the tsunami," she said. "Even if it's one life we save by being prepared, it's worth it."

Benjamin told the reporter she had not heard about panicked California residents stocking up on potassium iodide.

Her comments came as state and local health officials attempted to quell Californians' fears after reports of potassium iodide shortages at pharmacies and vitamin stores. Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, Los Angeles County’s public health chief, issued warnings against taking potassium iodide.

"We want to urge you not to take potassium iodide unnecessarily," Fielding said, noting that some people may be allergic and suffer side effects including intestinal upset, nausea and rashes.

"It's definitely not recommended as a precautionary medication," he said.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services clarified Benjamin's position.

"She commented that it is always important to be prepared, however she wouldn't recommend that anyone go out and purchase KI for themselves at this time," said spokeswoman Kate Migliaccio in an e-mail, referring to the compound by its scientific name.

"It's important for residents who have concerns to listen to state and local health authorities," Migliaccio said.


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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Image: Graphic illustrates the effects of radiation exposure. Credit: Amina Khan, Shari Roan, Mark Hafer / Los Angeles Times