Despite assurances that the nuclear emergency in Japan presents no danger to us here in California, local pharmacies and health food stores have seen a rush on over-the-counter medication that protects against radiation.

Despite assurances that the nuclear emergency in Japan presents no danger to us here in California, local pharmacies and health food stores have seen a rush on over-the-counter medication that protects against radiation.

“We completely sold out of potassium iodide within hours of opening on Friday morning,” said Heidi Morningstar, wellness department manager at Berryvale in Mount Shasta.

Though potassium iodide tablets are not an “anti-radiation” pill, they do block the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine.

A natural alternative, iodine-containing kelp supplements, are also sold out – not just at Berryvale, but also at Mountain Song Natural Foods, Rite Aid and Pharmacy Express, all in Mount Shasta.

“We urge Californians to not take potassium iodide as a precautionary measure,” said Dr. Howard Backer, interim director of the California Department of Public Health, and Mike Dayton, secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency in a press release Tuesday, adding that the tablets can present a danger to people with allergies to iodine, shellfish or who have thyroid problems.

They also warn if taken inappropriately, potassium iodide “can have serious side effects including abnormal heart rhythms, nausea, vomiting, electrolyte abnormalities and bleeding.”

Robert Rowley, Deputy Director of Emergency Services in Siskiyou County, asked residents to follow the state’s recommendations.

“They’re the experts,” Rowley said, adding that the situation is being closely monitored by many, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Department of Energy.

There are already a dozen monitoring stations scattered throughout California that test for radiation levels in the air, and more are on their way, Rowley said.

“We’ve been participating in daily conference calls with state and federal agencies, getting updates on the situation. We’re very engaged in the process, and we are prepared in case of an emergency,” stressed Rowley.

The rush to purchase potassium iodide swept the west coast after an 8.9 earthquake rocked Northern Japan on March 11. The ensuing tsunami caused damage to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

With this happening across the Pacific, many Californians are concerned that nuclear material will drift toward the US and cause radiation levels to rise, though the NRC maintains that “Hawaii, Alaska, the US Territories and the US West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity,” according to a Wednesday press release.

“In making protective action recommendations, the NRC takes into account a variety of factors that include weather, wind direction and speed, and the status of the problem at the reactors,” the NRC stated in the release.

Even with these assurances, many local residents are still on the lookout for potassium iodide tablets and other iodine-containing products.

“People have been coming in a lot asking for them,” said Rite Aid pharmacist Boris Pereira. “They can purchase it online, but many manufacturers are sold out, too.”

A quick look at the vitamin shelves at Rite Aid reveal a hole where the inexpensive kelp supplements are usually kept.

“We don’t carry potassium iodide, as it’s partially toxic, but we do usually carry the kelp. That’s gone, too,” said Lance Harriss, who manages the vitamins at Mountain Song. “We’re hoping to get more in next week, but the larger retailers are buying it out. There’s a very high demand.”

Harriss added that if people want to include iodine in their diet, they can eat sea vegetables, including dulse, nori, sea palm and wakame.

“Those foods have their own benefits, and are not toxic like potassium iodide would be,” he said.

Morningstar agreed.

“We’re trying to accommodate customers, but I caution them and encourage them to do their research. Kelp is a great alternative to the potassium iodide... it’s certainly safe; it’s a good superfood.”

For more information about the state’s recommendations and answers to frequently asked questions about radiation, go to http://www.cdph.ca.gov/Pages/RadiationFAQS2011.aspx.