WASHINGTON - The White House may scrap a plan that would give anti-radiation pills to millions of people, five years after Congress ordered that the tablets be made available to anyone living within 20 miles of a nuclear reactor.
Congress issued the order based on concerns that terrorists could attack a nuclear plant. The government already provided free pills to the 4.7 million people living within 10 miles of a plant, but Congress ordered wider distribution to cover 21.9 million people in 33 states.
Although the White House at the time called potassium iodide pills crucial to preventing thyroid cancer in cases of radiation exposure, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) argues against wider distribution of the drug. According to the NRC, the pills may not be the most effective way to prevent cancer and could undermine confidence in U.S. nuclear plants.
The once-a-day pills protect the thyroid against inhaled or ingested radioactive iodine by saturating it with harmless potassium iodide.
The White House is considering whether to invoke a legal loophole allowing the government to scrap the distribution requirement if there is a better way to prevent thyroid cancer. In July, President Bush instructed his science adviser to make that determination.
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Science Adviser John Marburger says he'll decide within a month.
Marburger says he'll consider whether other measures, such as evacuation and distribution of uncontaminated food, would be more effective. Any plan to protect people from developing thyroid cancer after radiation exposure "shouldn't be a symbolic effort," he said.
Patricia Milligan, the NRC's senior adviser for preparedness, says the commission opposes broad distribution of the pills because the best way to eliminate risk is to make sure people don't eat contaminated food.
She also says the NRC is concerned about undermining the reputation of the nuclear industry. "It's always a concern that if you expand the distribution (of the pills), you don't have confidence in the plants," she says. "We have studies that show the safety of our plants."
In July, President Bush stripped the Health and Human Services Department of responsibility for the program and turned it over to the NRC.
Thyroid cancer advocates and some lawmakers are furious.
Potassium iodide "is a simple, cheap, proven drug that can save countless lives, especially children, in the event of a nuclear release," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said. Without it, "millions of Americans are being left needlessly at risk."
According to the American Thyroid Association, there is no more effective preventive measure than potassium iodide, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Peter Crane, a former lawyer with the NRC and thyroid cancer advocate, says the administration stalled for five years under pressure from the NRC, which has "sabotaged (the law) from the get-go."
In preparing to distribute the pills, "HHS (the Health and Human Services department) and its health experts tried to do the right thing by America's children and were punished by having the issue taken away and given to the NRC," Crane says. "If you entrust our kids' health to nuclear engineers instead of doctors ... you are inviting disaster."
Marburger, a physicist who recently took potassium iodide to protect his thyroid from treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, says the issue is "more complicated than I expected it to be."
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