Radiation fears swamp Victoria pharmacies

Pharmacist Jonathan Cox shows off a potassium iodide capsule at Aaronson
Pharmacist Jonathan Cox shows off a potassium iodide capsule at Aaronson's Pharmacy. The pills can be used to ward off the effects of radiation.
— image credit: Don Denton/News staff

Amidst fears that radiation from Japan will make its way to B.C., Victoria pharmacies have been inundated with requests for an over-the-counter radiation-protection medication.

A number of Victoria residents are in hot pursuit of potassium iodide tablets. The drug protects the thyroid gland from exposure to radioactive particles, but won’t protect the rest of the body, according to Health Canada.

Pharmacist Jonathan Cox rarely gets requests for the pills at Aaronson’s Pharmacy, which carries the medicine. That changed last week when he was flooded with demands for the drug.

“It almost seems a bit hysterical,” hesaid. “It ranges from mild concern to immediate panic that B.C. and half of Alberta will be wiped out of all natural vegetation.”

Although potassium iodide is not a prescription drug, Cox is assessing each request on an individual basis before selling it. A few customers want to send it to friends and family in Japan.

“I’m not sure the general public knows that it only protects the thyroid gland (from radiation),” Cox explained, adding that potassium iodide can result in severe allergic reactions and even sicken the thyroid.

B.C.’s Ministry of Health is urging pharmacies not to unduly sell or stockpile potassium iodide, which Health Canada says is already creating shortages, potentially impacting people who legitimately need the medication.

“Based on present information, we do not expect any health risk following the nuclear reactor releases in Japan, nor is the consumption of potassium iodide tablets a necessary precaution,” B.C. provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall said.

“Even if radiation from Japan ever made it to British Columbia, our prediction based on current information, is that it would not pose any significant health risk.”

Despite assurances from health officials that Canadians are not at risk, “a lot of people are very worried,” said Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacy technician Kelsey Heath.

The Douglas Street store doesn’t sell the drug, but recently began providing potassium iodide information leaflets for customers to save time.

“We get at least 100 (inquiries) every day,” Heath said of the medication she says costs about $80 for 100 tablets. “It was so bad we started a daily tally.

“Even if we say we don’t have any, they get really mad (and say) ‘Oh, the government is conspiring against us.’”


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