US West Coast radiation risk low but fears persist

LOS ANGELES/VANCOUVER Fri Mar 18, 2011 6:26am EDT

Professor Kai Vetter of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, explains how the High Resolution Gamma Radiation Detector, protected by lead bricks, functions in Berkeley, California, March 17, 2011. Vetter and his team will be monitoring radiation levels in the area due to the nuclear crisis in Japan. REUTERS/Kim White

Professor Kai Vetter of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, explains how the High Resolution Gamma Radiation Detector, protected by lead bricks, functions in Berkeley, California, March 17, 2011. Vetter and his team will be monitoring radiation levels in the area due to the nuclear crisis in Japan.

Credit: Reuters/Kim White

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LOS ANGELES/VANCOUVER (Reuters) - North America is at little risk of receiving harmful levels of radiation from Japan's nuclear crisis, officials said on Thursday, but that has not stopped a scramble on the West Coast for items like potassium iodide and Geiger counters.

Low concentrations of radioactive particles from Japan's stricken nuclear plants are expected to drift over the Pacific Ocean but nothing has been detected as of late Thursday by U.S. or Canadian monitoring stations, officials said.

Health and safety authorities sought to reassure nervous residents that any radioactive particles would disperse as they cross the Pacific from Japan and not pose a public risk when they arrive. Even President Barack Obama weighed in.

"We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it is the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific," Obama said in a televised statement. "That is the judgment of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many other experts."

Officials have said it would take five or six days for any particles to cross the ocean. Vancouver is more than 4,700 miles (7,500 km) from Tokyo, while Los Angeles is more than 5,400 miles (8,800 km) away.

Public fear about the situation in Japan can be seen in prices being charged for online purchases of the potassium iodide antidote and Geiger counters that measure radiation.

At least five merchants on Amazon.com were selling packages of potassium iodide tablets for between $300 and $400, far above the usual list price of $10. Two big online sellers said on their websites they were sold out.

A website for a company offering Geiger counters also announced it was no longer accepting new orders because demand had out-stripped supply.

NO NEED, BUT NO SURPRISE

Potassium iodide tablets can saturate the thyroid gland and prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine. When given before or shortly after exposure, that can reduce the risk of cancer in the long term.

Health officials warn potassium iodide can pose its own risks if misused.

"People should not take it anywhere in North America for the things that are happening in Japan," Donn Moyer of Washington state's Department of Health told Reuters.

Authorities also discouraged people from shopping online for home remedies to fight radiation, and British Columbia health officials warned not to confuse iodide with iodine solution - which can hurt them if ingested.

The run on items is a common reaction in America's consumer-based culture, when media reports of possible disaster cause people to buy things they think will become scarce, said marketing expert Pamela Kennett-Hansel of the University of New Orleans.

"Under these conditions, people are not going through the rational consumer process they usually go through," said Kennett-Hansel, who studied patterns after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.

British Columbia's chief medical officer, Perry Kendall, said most people will heed warnings not to overreact but acknowledged his office has received calls alleging the government is engaging in a cover-up. (Additional reporting by Ross Kerber in Boston, Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Bill Trott)

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