Neighbors of nuclear plants line up for free medication

Pills could protect people exposed to heavy radiation

May 17, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown and Maria Blackburn | Lane Harvey Brown and Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

STREET - Linda Billings didn't know how close her family lived to Pennsylvania's Peach Bottom nuclear power plant until she received an e-mail recently informing her that they were within the 10-mile emergency zone and could receive free medication to help protect them if an accident happened there.

So yesterday, she stood in line with more than 330 people at the Highland community center in this tiny Harford County village to pick up doses of potassium iodide for herself, her husband and their two teen-age children.

"It's a little nerve-wracking really," said Billings, 46. "I definitely think I need to be prepared."

The pills she got are an over-the-counter medication that protects people exposed to high doses of radiation from developing thyroid cancer. Free doses of the medication are being made available to about 80,000 people in Maryland living within 10 miles of Exelon Corp.'s Peach Bottom nuclear plant in York County, Pa., or the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Lusby, in Calvert County, which provides electricity to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers.

It's the culmination of a program begun by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December 2000.

Since Sept. 11 - and with this week's reports that a nuclear facility could be targeted on July 4 - nuclear plant neighbors are showing high interest in obtaining the pills.

Sarah Ayres, 81, who has lived in Pylesville for 17 years, said, "It's scary. It makes me feel like they know something I don't."

Dark humor and nervous laughter rippled down the line yesterday as it snaked through a second-floor sitting room and out the door. Renee Hecht, 35, said, "I'm not really sure what the pill is going to do. My hair's going to fall out; my skin's going to rot away - but my thyroid is going to be OK."

Affected communities near the Peach Bottom plant are in portions of Cecil and Harford counties. Communities in the vicinity of the Calvert Cliffs plant are in portions of Calvert, Dorchester and St. Mary's counties. Maryland is one of 13 states to have requested or received potassium iodide tablets from the regulatory commission.

Potassium iodide protects the thyroid from radioactive iodine but does not protect against radiation exposure. Taken in proper doses at the proper time, it will saturate the thyroid gland so that it cannot absorb harmful radioactive iodines.

Michael J. Sharon, chief of the emergency response division at the Maryland Department of the Environment, said, "Evacuation still is and will always be the preferable measure to protect the public in the unlikely event of a nuclear incident."

About 14,000 Harford County residents live near the Peach Bottom plant. Radio broadcasts this week linking U.S. intelligence reports that a nuclear plant might be the target of terrorists July 4 and the planned distribution of potassium iodide to area schools were erroneous but nevertheless prompted a flurry of calls to the county.

On Wednesday, the county Health Department and schools teamed up to send information home to worried parents setting the record straight, said Doug Richmond, Harford's emergency planner.

County health departments have been charged with distributing Maryland's allotment of 160,000 potassium iodide pills to residents, employers, day care centers and schools.

In Calvert County, where distribution of potassium iodide pills began April 20, about 13 percent of the 36,000 people living within 10 miles of the Calvert Cliffs plant have received pills.

In Cecil County, about 1,600 people out of an eligible 8,000 have received pills from the health department.

In Dorchester County, where an estimated 300 people in the Taylor's Island area are eligible to receive pills, distribution is scheduled at the health department in Cambridge and at the Taylor's Island firehouse this month.

In St. Mary's, county health department officials have distributed the pills since late last month to 1,000 of the county's 9,000 eligible people.

In Harford, more than 660 residents have stopped in at distribution centers. Tomorrow is the last day they can pick up pills, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Darlington Fire Company, 2600 Castleton Road, in Darlington.

Residents within 10 miles of the Peach Bottom or Calvert Cliffs plants who did not receive the potassium iodide pills are urged to contact their local health department. For more information, go to: http://www.mde.state.md.us and click on "News."

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