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US run on iodide pills despite reassurances

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US authorities sought Wednesday to  reassure Americans that there is minimal health risk here of radioactivity  from Japan, as a US iodide pill maker reported an “enormous” run on the drug.

Demand for potassium iodide, which can protect against the effects of  radioactive iodine, was strongest on the US West Coast, where some fear a  cloud spewing from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant could be blown, drug  company Anbex said.

The firm, which says it is the only US maker of the pills, was flooded with  thousands of orders for its Iosat drug after last Friday’s earthquake and  tsunami, which has triggered an ongoing nuclear crisis.

“The spike is enormous … we were out of stock by Friday night,” said Alan  Morris, president of Anbex, which supplies the drug to individuals and  retailers, including online.

“The demand mostly is coming from the West Coast of the US, but there are a  significant number of inquiries, requests, orders coming from Japan, Korea,  all over the Far East,” he told AFP.

A random survey of Los Angeles pharmacies by an AFP photographer found no  lines of people trying to buy the drug, although some retailers said they had  received some requests, but did not have supplies.

The surge in demand came as the head of the US Nuclear Regulatory  Commission warned of “extremely high” radiation levels from the Fukushima  plant.

US authorities have repeatedly said there is minimal risk of radioactivity  reaching the US mainland, while meteorologists say it is difficult to predict  exactly how far a radioactive cloud would spread across the Pacific.

The California Department of Public Health’s interim director, Howard  Backer, also stressed the risks involved in taking potassium iodide  unnecessarily.

“We urge Californians to not take potassium iodide as a precautionary  measure,” he said.

“It is not necessary given the current circumstances in Japan, it can  present a danger to people with allergies to iodine, shellfish or who have  thyroid problems, and taken inappropriately it can have serious side effects,”  Backer added.

In one apparent miscommunication, US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin  appeared to contradict the reassuring message during a visit to San Francisco  on Tuesday.

“We can’t be overprepared — we learned that with 9/11, we learned that  with Katrina and we learned that this week with the tsunami,” she told an NBC  reporter. “Even if it’s one life we save by being prepared, it’s worth it.”

A spokeswoman clarified her position on Wednesday, saying Benjamin had not  heard about panicked California residents stocking up on potassium iodide.    “She commented that it is always important to be prepared. However she  wouldn’t recommend that anyone go out and purchase (the drug) for themselves  at this time,” said spokeswoman Kate Migliaccio, according to the Los Angeles  Times.

Anbex chief Morris said his drug company, which developed the product after  the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979, hoped to have new stocks of  potassium iodide pills ready to ship in two weeks.

His company was the only US manufacturer of potassium in pill form, he  said, adding that there was a liquid form available from a company called  Fleming Pharmaceuticals.

A statement on the Fleming’s website said the firm was “running nearly  around the clock as employees ship potassium iodide to Japan.”

Radioactive iodine from a nuclear event can pollute the air and contaminate  the food supply. Experts believe many cancer cases after the Chernobyl  disaster in Ukraine in 1986 were linked to milk from contaminated cows.

Thyroid glands quickly absorb radioactive iodine, causing damage. But  iodide pills can block radioactive iodine from being taken into the thyroid  gland, according to a fact sheet by the US Centers for Disease Control.

Los Angeles, March 16, 2011 (AFP)