San Francisco safe from Japan fallout, but residents still stock up on pills 

The radiation moving toward California from Japan’s damaged nuclear reactors poses no imminent health threat locally, but that isn’t stopping San Franciscans from stocking up on medication to thwart radiation contamination.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is monitoring the radiation spewing from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant on the east coast of Japan, which was damaged following a 9.0-magnitude earthquake March 11. Agency spokeswoman Kristine Roselius said the Bay Area has not seen an increase in radiation levels.

“We’re not expecting any levels that are problematic for health,” she said. “It takes a lot for radiation particles to get in the atmosphere. We are not expecting them to increase.”

And while some computer modules suggest the radioactive plume could reach Southern California as early as Friday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District said Thursday there has been no change in that region’s background levels of radiation.

But in spite of such assurances, some San Franciscans are stockpiling pills as a precaution.

In cases of severe radioactive contamination, potassium iodide can be used to protect the thyroid gland from injury. But health officials are warning against use of the pills because they can pose great health risks if taken incorrectly.

Nonetheless, an employee at Rainbow Grocery on Folsom Street said the store has sold out of the compound. The grocery is not expecting another shipment until Monday.

The Whole Foods groceries in Potrero Hill and the Haight-Ashbury also have sold out of potassium iodide. Customer service representatives there said as soon as new shipments come in, they sell out. The California Street location, however, still has limited supplies of a kelp supplement, which is touted by some as a natural alternative to potassium iodide.

According to the California Department of Health, taking potassium iodide poses several health risks to people with allergies to iodine or shellfish, or those with thyroid problems.

“Taken inappropriately, it can have serious side effects, including abnormal heart rhythms, nausea, vomiting, electrolyte abnormalities and bleeding,” according to a statement from the department. “We urge Californians to not take potassium iodide as a precautionary measure.”

Potassium iodide is a salt of stable iodine that is not radioactive. It protects the thyroid from radiation, but does not protect the rest of the body, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can protect people from long-term health effects such as cancer if radioactive iodine is inhaled after a nuclear emergency.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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