As workers struggle to contain the fallout from the crippled nuclear plant in northeastern Japan, people as far away as Illinois are calling public health officials in a state of panic.
There is much hue and cry all over the world to buy 'Potassium Iodide' .. a drug known to protect thyroid gland from radiation to some extent. Panic is being created even on some social websites like Facebook, and Twitter etc. by some people.
They are hoping to get their hands on potassium iodide pills to protect them from radiation -- despite warnings that, in the absence of a real nuclear threat, taking the medicine is riskier than doing nothing.Sixty-six years after the first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, radiation spooks people everywhere. But the anxiety is largely disproportionate to the actual danger.
"People in general have an exaggerated fear of radiation. That is true in the United States, and it is probably even more so in Japan & whole Asia" said Jerrold Bushberg, director of health physics programs and clinical professor of radiology and radiation oncology at the University of California Davis.
Despite the Japanese government's assurances that the risk so far is minimal, residents of Tokyo have flooded out of the city and foreigners have fled the country, hoping to escape a threat they cannot see.
The fact is that everyone is exposed to small amounts of radiation every day just from living on earth or flying in an airplane. That all adds up to about 2.4 units, known as millisieverts, a year. This can vary widely, ranging from 1 to 10 millisieverts, depending on where you live.
Background radiation will cause 1 out of 100 people to die of cancer in their lifetimes, said Dr. Donald Bucklin, who spent 10 years as medical director for the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, the largest nuclear plant in the United States. Additional exposure increases this risk.
In Tokyo, 150 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, people grew fearful when readings rose about 10 times above the normal reading. At that level, residents were exposed to 0.809 microsieverts per hour -- 1,000 times less than a millisievert, or about 10 times less than a chest X-ray.
"The levels of radiation experienced by the public at present should be no cause for concern," said Dr. Richard Wakeford, visiting professor of epidemiology at the Dalton Nuclear Institute at University of Manchester in Britain.
"To put radiation doses into context, many Japanese undergo CT scans for cancer screening purposes, and these scans produce radiation doses of about 10 millisieverts (10,000 microsieverts) -- much more than they are receiving from the Fukushima reactors."
Japan radiation localized, no immediate threat: WHO :
Friday,March.18,2011 .... The WHO believes the spread of radiation from a quake crippled nuclear plant in Japan remains limited and appears to pose no immediate threat or risk to health.
At this point, there is still no evidence that there's been significant radiation spread beyond the immediate zone of the reactors themselves," Michael O'Leary (WHO China's representative) told a group of reporters.
"At the same time, we know that the situation is evolving and we need to monitor closely and see what happens over time. Things can obviously change, and have changed, over this last week."
(This GeoEye's IKONOS satellite image was taken over the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan at 10:19 am (Tokyo time) on March 17, 2011 and released to Reuters on March 17 ).
Japan has been battling for nearly a week to bring under control the overheating Fukushima nuclear plant after it was battered by a massive earthquake and tsunami.
Experts and officials fear a major leak of radioactive substances from the plant could pose a serious health risk, and China, India and nearby countries have stepped up monitoring of radiation levels.
O'Leary suggested that the impact of such an event on this region would be small, but said other factors mattered too.
"The reactors, of course, are quite far from India and China. The risk of spread depends on several factors. One is obviously the amount of radioactive material, or radionuclides, that are released from the reactor itself. Beyond that are weather and wind conditions that determine," he said.
"As with anything that spreads or can spread out, the farther away you are, the more dispersed it is."
The emergency has sparked panic buying of iodized salt in China and India , based on the misunderstanding that the iodine it contains could prevent the body's intake of radioactive iodine that could be released in the event of a major explosion at the plant.
But O'Leary said iodine should not be taken indiscriminately or treated as a substitute for supplements administered before or shortly after radiation exposure to reduce the risk of long-term cancer.
"It should not be taken indiscriminately. It does have potential side effects," he said.
"The amount of iodine in salt is very small. It wouldn't be possible to consume enough salt to get a protective dose. In the end, not many people will need iodine supplements."