If radioactive particles from the damaged Japanese nuclear power plant reach Hawaii, state Department of Health officials say they will have speedy access to a federal stockpile of anti-radiation medication.
“If there is a need for medication, should it rise to that level — we feel it won’t — but should it rise to that level, we have already explored the availability of potassium iodide on island and we know that we have a good stock,” Acting Health Department Director Loretta Fuddy told the Senate Health Committee Wednesday. “The other thing is that we have already looked into our federal stockpile, and if necessary, we can activate that and have medications here within 24 hours.”
The DOH, state and counties say mass distribution of medication to the public would take place within 24 hours of receiving the pills from the Centers for Disease Control, which maintains a cache of medicines and medical supplies ready for deployment in the event of a public health emergency such as a radiological disaster.
The announcement came as health officials sought to address public concern. Their main message: Alaska and Washington may have something to worry about, but Hawaii — so far — appears beyond the potential danger zone.
After a March 11 earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan, workers at the Fukushima nuclear complex are scrambling to avoid a full reactor meltdown. A series of explosions at the plant followed by alarming media reports have led many Hawaii residents to begin stockpiling their own potassium iodide (KI) pills.
The pills saturate the thyroid gland, keeping it from absorbing some radioactive iodide particles. But, the department emphasizes that there is no need to purchase the pills. Taking them prematurely, they said, could potentially be more dangerous than the radiation itself.
Doctors with the DOH testified that those allergic to shellfish may also be allergic to potassium pills.
If anything, Fuddy says Alaska and Washington have a greater chance of being exposed to harmful radiation than Hawaii.
The Eastern-Pacific jet stream runs from west to east, indicating that if any particles make it far enough into the atmosphere to hitch a ride, they would first reach the Northwest U.S. coast before potentially wrapping back around towards Hawaii.
An explosion at the Fukushima plant would have to be powerful enough to blow the particles 20,000 to 40,000 feet into the air to reach the jet stream. If the worst case did happen, officials say Hawaii would have three to five days to activate its federal medical stock and distribute the pills to the public.
Fuddy says the department is ready, no matter what the outcome.
“The Department of Health… has a very robust plan to coordinate with state civil defense and the military and the counties,” Fuddy said. “We feel like we’re ready, we’ve been prepared for this and we’re getting the message out into the community. And we can handle the situation as it arises.”
The DOH has two radiation detectors, one on Oahu and one in Hilo, and there have been no reports so far of spikes in radiation. Fuddy also says the federal government has made two more detectors available to Hawaii and they will be installed on the North Shore of Oahu and on Kauai.
Officials say the experience in 2009 with the H1N1 Swine Flu scare helped them better prepare for dealing with possible nuclear fallout.
Senate Health Committee Chair Josh Green asked the DOH to provide daily reports to the Legislature as events unfold.
“People get different messages in this modern society from so many different sources, so we do trust what you say,” Green said. “We need and expect constant updates and finally, we send out a solemn concern and prayer for the people in Japan.”
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