It's bad enough that the media seems to be deliberately conflating the nuclear accident with the tsunami's death toll (e.g., "Japan Digs for Thousands of Dead Amid Nuclear Crisis"), which appears to be an attempt to make unwary readers think that the accident at the power plant caused those deaths. And it sure hasn't helped that they've been distorting the science behind radiation and radioactivity. Now the ineptitude and ignorance of Obama's Surgeon General is actually making things worse.
In an example of panic and illogic that is typical for the Golden State, fears that a plume of radioactivity will cross the Pacific and rain down on California have resulted in a run on iodine tablets. Pharmacies are being inundated with requests for the chemical. I've even heard of some people in Idaho and other regions who are snatching up iodine at drugstores as well as buying it on the Internet.
As I mentioned in a previous post, tablets of stable iodine are taken by those who are exposed to fission products to saturate the thyroid and prevent the absorption of the radioactive isotope of iodine that is produced in a nuclear reactor. However, it won't protect a person from external gamma radiation or the ingestion of other fission products like radioactive strontium or cesium.
So, in the middle of a panic, when state and local officials are trying to calm down the citizens, what does Surgeon General Regina Benjamin say?
State and county officials spent much of Tuesday trying to keep people calm by saying that getting the pills wasn't necessary, but then the United States surgeon general supported the idea as a worthy "precaution."Dr. Benjamin's response was utterly inappropriate and thoughtless. Instead of backing up Californian officials who correctly insist that such precautions are unnecessary, the Surgeon General has instead given support to baseless worries.
[...] NBC Bay Area reporter Damian Trujillo asked [U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin] about the run on tablets and Dr. Benjamin said although she wasn't aware of people stocking up, she did not think that would be an overreaction. She said it was right to be prepared.
Californians' concerns are unwarranted for several reasons. First, the spread of contamination seems to be relatively limited. This is not like the Chernobyl accident in which the combination of an exploded reactor vessel and burning graphite blew huge amounts of contamination into the air and caused a measurable amount of radioactivity to spread across northern Europe. Even then, although towns near Chernobyl were made uninhabitable, the levels of contamination found in the rest of Europe were relatively harmless. In contrast, the Fukushima reactors are mostly intact and don't contain flammable materials inside their vessels. Second, Japan is over 5,000 miles from California. By the time contamination could reach the West Coast from Japan, the cloud would probably be so widely dispersed that the radioactivity would be effectively undetectable and would have a negligible impact on public health. Third, the radioactive isotope that the pills are designed to protect against (i.e., iodine-131) has a half-life of only 8 days. This means that within 8 days, half of the iodine reaching California would have transformed into a stable form of xenon gas. Since it can take 7 to 9 days for dust in Asia to cross the Pacific Ocean, by the time any contamination actually reached North America much of the iodine-131 would have changed into a harmless substance. The other major fission products, cesium-137 and strontium-90, have longer half-lives (30.2 and 28.9 years, respectively).
After the absurdities of the media, panicky Californians, and the U.S. Surgeon General this past week, I can honestly say that I've seen 1950s b-movies with a better understanding of nuclear energy.