Radiation from the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan could reach the Aleutian Islands later today and California tomorrow, according to a simulated model from the United Nations reported on by the New York Times. (See the animated graphic from the Times story.) The projection doesn't show how much radiation could arrive, but simply estimates when monitoring stations might be able to detect extremely low levels of radiation. Experts quoted in the Times story say that by the time the plume travels that far the radiation will be diluted and extremely unlikely to pose any significant risks to human health.
That hasn't stopped people in California and elsewhere, however, from worrying. Many people have apparently started stocking up on potassium-iodide pills
, which can help prevent one type of cancer--thyroid cancer--caused by exposure to radiation. And some may have even started taking them.
"But that step is only necessary if you're exposed to dangerously high levels, and even then is most useful for children and pregnant women, since radiation poses the greatest risk of thyroid cancer in children," says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., chief medical adviser to Consumer Reports and an expert in thyroid disorders. "And taking potassium iodide if you don't need it can be risky, since it can interact with some drugs, trigger allergic reactions, and be harmful to people with existing thyroid disease."
--Joel Keehn, senior editor
See our tips on preparing for emergencies, including nuclear disasters.