Pharmacies in and around La Grange this past week were peppered with requests from customers seeking potassium iodide tablets, an over-the-counter preparation with proven but limited ability to protect against the harmful effects of one type of nuclear radiation.
The numbers reported varied widely from store to store and paled in comparison to those in states on the West Coast where, as was widely reported by the national news media, panic-buying of potassium iodide tablets erupted at the prospect—unlikely, federal officials said—that deadly radiation released by earthquake-damaged nuclear reactors in Japan would be carried to the U.S. by jetstream air currents.
Still, reported demand for potassium iodide (also called by its chemical name, KI) locally and across the state was alarming enough that the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) March 17 issued a press release to warn that the inorganic compound has potentially harmful side effects and was only effective when exposure to life-threatening radiation was imminent or already had occurred.
When properly administered, potassium iodide saturates the thyroid gland with healthy iodine, thereby blocking the absorption of radioactive iodine-131, a deadly byproduct of nuclear fission.
The press release reminds residents to consult a doctor before taking KI and states: " ... the Illinois Department of Public Health discourages residents from taking potassium iodide at this time."
Local Demand for Potassium Iodide
On March 15, pharmacists at, 2 N. LaGrange Road, said they had received more than a dozen requests that day for potassium iodide, but were unable to fill them because the store does not stock the tablets. Aside from their usefulness during radiation exposure, the tablets have no other medicinal purpose. However, the tablets could be special ordered, the pharmacists said.
Other major local pharmacies, none of which routinely stock the tablets, also reported demand for them, but in numbers significantly fewer than Walgreens.
On March 16, an employee at CVS, 89911 Ogden Avenue in Brookfield, said the store had received "a couple" of requests for the tablets.
Karen May, an external communications manager for Jewel-Osco, which operates stores in La Grange Park and Countryside, said that none of the company's pharmacies had "received customer inquiries about these products." But during a visit to the , 507 E. Woodlawn Ave., on March 18, an employee at the pharmacy acknowledged receiving one phone inquiry for the tablets that morning.
A spokeswoman at Dominick's corporate offices in Oak Brook, after promising to answer questions if they were submitted via email, as of March 21 had not responded.
Nor did officials at Walgreens headquarters in Deerfield respond to questions emailed to an address on its Website designated for media inquiries.
But, according to pharmacists at the La Grange Walgreens on March 18, the company circulated via email an internal memo regarding potassium iodide—which the pharmacists were not able to produce for inspection—allegedly stating that Walgreens will not be selling potassium iodide tablets under any circumstances for the foreseeable future as the federal government is taking control of all unsold quantities.
However, the manager of the Brookfield CVS on Odgen Avenue said Saturday that he had not received any such notice from company officials.
Kelly Jakubek, an IDPH spokeswoman, said March 18 that she too was unaware of any federal effort to corral supplies of the tablets.
"There's lots of misinformation floating around at a time like this," Jakubek said.
That is why the IDPH issued the press release to caution citizens who might get hold of some of the tablets and subsequently misuse them.
"There's no need to take them at this time," she said. Also, potassium iodide can produce harmful side effects for some people, especially those allergic to iodine-rich foods, such as shellfish.
KI is No Cure-All
There is, in fact, a local pharmacy where potassium iodide can be found: the one operated by , 5101 Willow Springs Road. It does not carry the tablets, but does stock SSKI, a solution of water that is saturated with the compound. Specially formulated to treat goiter and other iodine deficiencies, it is not intended to prevent radiation absorption and is available only by prescription, said David Tsang, the hospital's pharmacy director.
Tsang also had not heard of any federal intervention of the supply chain, but said he would not be surprised, adding that his SSKI provider had informed him that the product was temporarily unavailable.
"There are people in Japan who need it more than we do," he said.
Tsang acknowledged that SSKI potentially could be used to protect the thyroid from radiation, but also was emphatic that potassium iodide is not a cure-all to ward off the harmful effects of radiation. It only protects against thyroid cancer, which takes years to develop, he said.
"When you have a nuclear disaster like the one in Japan, it's not just radioactive iodine that is being released," he said. "If you lived within 50 miles of those reactors, radioactive iodine is probably the last thing you would be worried about."
Nuclear reactors release an assortment of radioactive isotopes, including cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years compared to around eight days for iodine-131, and for which there is no pharmaceutical protection, Tsang said.
"There are many factors that determine how dangerous exposure to radiation is: how close you are, how heavy the dose and how long the half-life—those three things put together determine how much damage you will get," he said.
"The only reason people are fixated on potassium iodide is because it is the only thing that offers any kind of countermeasure," Tsang said. "For all the other consequences, there probably is not much you can do."
Nuclear Radiation Risk in Illinois?
While that might be not be what someone frightened by the prospect of radiation from Japan sweeping across North America wants to hear, the probability of measurably harmful levels of radiation reaching the West Coast, let alone Illinois, are remote, federal and state officials so far have maintained.
Regardless, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), which primarily monitors the state's seven nuclear power plants—six active and one that was decommissioned but still holds spent fuel rods—has been in regular and frequent contact with the numerous federal agencies involved both in monitoring events in Japan and assessing any potential impact on the U.S., said Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the agency.
"We certainly have been on several calls with our federal partners, and at this point nobody has given us any indication [that a threat is likely]," Thompson said. "But everybody is keeping a close eye on it because you want to be prepared for anything."
Also in the preparedness loop is the IDPH.
"We're constantly in touch with IEMA, the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Health & Human Services, as well as our local health departments," Jakubek said. "Our main goal is to make sure we are protecting the health of our residents."
"If we felt there was an imminent risk of a high level of radiation exposure, we would work to make sure there was a supply of potassium iodide [available to the public]," Jakubek said.
Checking some records as she spoke, Jakubek discovered that the state purchased a large quantity of potassium iodide in 2002, not long after the 9/11 attacks. Some of it was distributed to health centers and residents living within ten miles of the state's seven nuclear power plants amidst concern those reactors also could be targets for terrorists, she said.
The expiration date for that supply has since passed, Jakubek said, and no additional supplies have been ordered.