Despite an order from Congress, the Bush administration has not given millions of people living within 20 miles of nuclear power plants access to pills that could help protect them if they are exposed to radiation.
It will be early 2006, at the earliest, before potassium iodide pills are made available to those people. Congress had ordered that the pills, which help prevent thyroid cancer, be stockpiled by mid-2003.
Rep. Edward Markey (news, bio, voting record), D-Mass., said it's "outrageous" that the administration hasn't made the pills more widely available.
"Nuclear power plants are at the top of the al-Qaeda target list," he said. "Potassium iodide is an inexpensive way to protect infants and children."
The federal government already makes pills available to states that have residents living within 10 miles of a licensed nuclear reactor. The nation has 104 such reactors spread across 33 states.
After the Sept. 11 attacks raised concerns that terrorists might try to attack nuclear power plants, members of Congress decided more people should be protected.
HOW PILLS WORK
A nuclear accident produces radioactive iodine. Potassium iodide pills, if taken quickly, fill the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine, thereby blocking the radioactive element from the thyroid.
As part of broad bioterrorism legislation passed in 2002, Congress set a June 2003 deadline for the administration to offer free potassium iodide pills to states that have residents living within a 20-mile radius of a plant.
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 4.7 million people live within a 10-mile radius of the nation's plants, and 21.9 million live within a 20-mile radius. Because the pills are recommended only for people 40 and younger, who are more likely than older people to get thyroid cancer, not everyone would need them.
The once-a-day pills are approved by the Food and Drug Administration and must be started within four hours of exposure. Thyroid cancer would be a leading health concern, particularly among children, in the event of a radioactive iodine leak caused by an accident or a terrorist attack.
Robert Claypool, director of the emergency preparedness planning office at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), acknowledges the government is way behind schedule.
He blames bureaucratic indecision during the past two years about which government agency - HHS or the Homeland Security Department - should be in charge of the federal government's stockpile of drugs and anti-dotes for anthrax, smallpox and other diseases.
The dispute was resolved this year in favor of HHS.
"All of us understand that more time has elapsed than Congress intended," Claypool said. "We're doing our best to try to comply with it."
States have the option of stockpiling their own potassium iodide pills.
Under the bioterrorism law, HHS must offer guidelines to states on how to store, distribute and use them. HHS published guidelines for public comment in August.
Claypool said the administration is pushing to get the program in place. But he added that officials are concerned that the pills, which protect the thyroid against inhaled or ingested radioactive iodine by saturating it with harmless potassium iodide, "will be overrelied on as a panacea" in lieu of evacuation and decontamination.
Alan Morris, president of Anbex, a company that sells the pills over the Internet, says the government could buy them for only 18 cents per pill. Most people would probably need to take the pills only a few days before the radiation dissipated.
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