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County issues thousands of anti-radiation pills

Officials hand out potassium iodide tablets and instructions for their use Saturday.
Officials hand out potassium iodide tablets and instructions for their use Saturday.  

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, New York (CNN) -- A suburban New York county Saturday handed out thousands of pills meant to give residents limited protection from radiation in case of disaster at a nearby nuclear power plant.

Westchester County officials are giving out free potassium iodide tablets, known as "KI," to anyone who lives within 10 miles of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, about 35 miles north of New York City. About 140,000 people live in that 10-mile radius.

People lined up outside a Yorktown Heights school to pick up the pills, which can prevent thyroid cancer, if taken within 24-hours of a nuclear exposure. The pill works by preventing the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation.

Officials said the pills would protect people long enough for them to be evacuated from the area, but they warn that it is not a panacea. Westchester County spokeswoman Victoria Hochman told The Associated Press that 2,617 people had picked up 10,533 KI pills by the end of the day Saturday.

"These are not protecting against everything in a nuclear accident. I think that is really important to emphasize," said Dr. Loren Wissner Greene, a thyroid specialist at New York University Medical Center. "What it does do is decrease the ability of the thyroid gland to pick up this radioactive iodine, which can cause a high instance of thyroid cancer, especially in young children."

Indian Point's owner, the New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., says that its plant is designed with multiple safety systems, and the prospect of an accident that would threaten the public is "unlikely."

Joseph Ruffino, who brought his two young daughters to pick up the pills, said the whole thing was kind of surreal.

"It's hard to believe this is your daily reality these days, but it is," he said.

The pill giveaway also attracted anti-nuclear activists who said the only way to protect the community is to close the plant.

Ruffino said he had much more respect for the protesters now than he did in the past.

"I looked at them very differently, no doubt about it," he said.

New York State received 1.2 million pills to give to people who live near the plant. Twelve other states that have nuclear reactors have also requested the pills from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Maryland and Vermont were the first states to give them out, The Associated Press reported.

Dozens of pharmacies in the county are selling the pills to people who live more than 10 miles from the plant, according to the county's Web site.




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