States Offer Free Pills No One Wants To Take

By: - June 7, 2002 12:00 am

Several states want to give away free medicine, but they hope it will not get used.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11and perceived threats against nuclear facilities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) made potassium iodide pills available for people who live or work within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear reactor. The pills can be taken in the event of a nuclear explosion to help reduce the risk of thyroid cancer, caused by inhaling radioiodine.

Thirteen states Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Vermont, Delaware, Florida, Alabama, Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire have already requested the pills and are working on distributing it to eligible residents. The NRC’s emergency preparedness regulations require all states with a population within a 10-mile radius to consider the pill distribution.

“It’s up to states on how to distribute it,” said Diane Screnci, spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We’re just paying for it.”

Maryland and New York decided to use local governments as the primary vehicle for getting the pills to residents and also educating people about its use. State officials say rumors have challenged the process.

“We’re mostly fighting with the media who like to call this a nuke drug,” said John Verrico, director of communications for Maryland’s Environmental Department. “The biggest problem we’ve had is dispelling the rumor that this is a cure-all.”

Ohio Health Department officials requested the pills on May 7 and are looking at options to distribute them through pharmacies and local health departments. Like most states, Ohio will use mass mailings to educate residents about the pill and its use.

“We’re trying to make sure that potassium iodide is a supplement to evacuation,” Jay Carey, spokesman for the Ohio Health Department, said. “It’s not a magic pill. It’s not going to cure all the ills of radiation.”

The Food and Drug Administration approves the drug and provided dosage recommendations for states to use, especially as they distribute the pill to schools near reactors.

“What we’ve learned from Chernobyl [the 1986 reactor accident] is that children should have a much lower dose,” Laura Bradbard, spokeswoman for the FDA, said, “but you would rather have them taking a higher dose than none at all in the case of a nuclear emergency.”

“In some cases, school nurses may need to distribute it,” said Mike Nawoj, spokesman for the New Hampshire Emergency Management Office. “Other schools don’t allow any drugs to be handed out.”

But states like Connecticut are developing a uniform distribution method so the schools don’t have to struggle on their own, said John Wiltse, director of the Connecticut Office of Emergency Management.

Connecticut hopes to have its entire program implemented in schools and other special needs facilities, such as nursing homes and hospitals, by the end of the year. Pennsylvania expects to have a distribution plan prepared when they receive their pills from the NRC.

“We don’t know when we’ll be receiving the pills,” April Hutcheson, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said. “We want to distribute the pills as soon as we receive them.”

But Hutcheson pointed out that, as in other states, getting and taking the pills is voluntary for the residents.

Vermont began distributing the pills six weeks ago, and less than 1 percent of the eligible residents have applied for and received the pill.

“It’s been slow and steady,” said Ray McCandless, spokesman for the Vermont Health Department. “It’s always voluntary, but we expect that as people move in and out and change jobs there will be a steady need to have new residents and workers make application.”

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