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WHO Warns Against Self-Medication as Antidote to Radiation

Bottles of potassium iodide sit on the shelf of the Texas Star Pharmacy in Plano, Texas, March 15, 2011
Bottles of potassium iodide sit on the shelf of the Texas Star Pharmacy in Plano, Texas, March 15, 2011

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns against the indiscriminate use of potassium iodide as a precaution against nuclear radiation. WHO is issuing this advisory following reports of people in Japan and elsewhere who are using the substance in response to radiation leaks from nuclear plants in northeastern Japan.

The World Health Organization calls self-medication a bad idea. It says potassium iodide pills are not antidotes for radiation. The United Nations agency says they do not protect against external radiation, or against any other radioactive substance.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl says potassium iodide should be taken only when there is a clear public health recommendation to do so.

"Indiscriminate use of the product can cause side effects such as inflammation of the salivary glands, nausea, rashes, intestinal upset and possible severe allergic reactions," said Hartl. "It can also interact with other medications, especially certain types of cardiovascular medications such as ACE inhibitors, receptor blockers and potassium-sparing diuretics."

On another issue, the World Health Organization says it is safe to eat food produced before the nuclear power plant leakage in northeastern Japan occurred. But it says food grown and harvested in the 30-kilometer exclusion zone after the emergency might be contaminated and should be avoided.

WHO says there is no reason to restrict travel to Japan, as there are no dangers of nuclear radiation except in the exclusion zone. The World Meteorological Organization agrees with this assessment.

The Head of WMO's Aeronautical Meteorological Division, Herbert Tuempel, says there is no reason to fear international air travel unless there is a change in the current radiological situation.

"There is a small exclusion zone of a 30-kilometer radius around the plant where there is no traffic allowed - neither marine nor air traffic is allowed into this 30-kilometer radius," noted Tuempel. "But apart from this very small area, there is no restriction to international air travel."

Tuempel says there also is no need for screening incoming passengers, except for those who have been directly involved in the crisis.

He says he has potentially good news for the thousands of homeless tsunami survivors who are suffering from bitterly cold weather. He says these nasty winter conditions are coming to an end. Temperatures are expected to rise, and this, he says, will take some of the pressure off people who do not have proper housing.