Reactors' neighbors focus of initiative

Residents to receive pills to reduce cancer risk in case of radiation leak

October 17, 2005|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

Next year, people living near nuclear power plants in Maryland and Pennsylvania will be offered pills they can take after a radioactive disaster to reduce their risk of developing cancer, according to federal officials.

As part of a national program that is running years behind schedule, potassium iodide pills will be available to residents living 10 to 20 miles from the Calvert Cliffs plant in Southern Maryland and the Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania, officials said.

Potassium iodide can help prevent thyroid cancer after a nuclear accident that releases radioactive dust into the air, as happened in Chernobyl in 1986, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It does not prevent all forms of radiation sickness.

About 72,000 Maryland residents living within 10 miles of the two plants were offered the pills three years ago in response to federal legislation. In 2002, Congress increased to a 20-mile radius the size of the zone in which the pills are to be made available and set a June 2003 deadline for distribution.

But planning for the second round of pills was delayed by the effort to organize the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was to assume responsibility for the program, said Marc Wolfson, a spokesman for Health and Human Services.

"That led to the slowness - you had a whole new department trying to defend the homeland that had to get organized," Wolfson said. "There is not a problem in getting the pills. There are adequate supplies in the pipeline to cover this additional area."

About a third of the people living in Calvert, St. Mary's, Dorchester, Harford and Cecil counties targeted in the first round of distribution responded to the public notification and now have the pills in their homes, said Edward McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

Tablets for the other two-thirds of families are stockpiled in county health departments and emergency management offices and will be distributed if there is a radioactive disaster, McDonough said.

The federal government's proposal for distributing pills in the expanded zone should be finished this winter, Wolfson said. Then states will submit applications, with the pills to be offered next year to people who live within 20 miles of power plants.

Neither Maryland nor Calvert County officials said they were concerned about the three-year delay. McDonough said the state "will follow whatever guidelines come down the pike" from the federal government. He added, however, that "there is some dispute among the health community of the value of [the pills] beyond the 10-mile radius."

Dan Williams, deputy health officer for Calvert County, said the county has a supply of 6,000 pills ready and is confident that the state could provide sufficient additional medication in a crisis. "We do have a stockpile of potassium iodide on hand and could easily distribute more if required," Williams said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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