State Health Department Addresses Questions on Radiation Impact from Japan Nuclear Plants

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 17, 2011) - In the wake of last Friday's major earthquake and ensuing tsunami that damaged several nuclear power plants in Japan, State Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H., is reassuring New Yorkers today that no U.S. states are expected to experience harmful levels of radiation.

In addition, the New York State Department of Health (DOH) is providing the following information to address concerns about health and safety related to radiation.

What is the expected impact in the United States?

A number of federal agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are continually monitoring radiation levels of air, drinking water, milk and precipitation across the country. This nationwide monitoring network, RadNet, will alert the agencies to any changes in radiation levels. Additional monitoring sites in Hawaii, Alaska and Guam have also been added in the wake of the evolving situation in Japan. At this time, no U.S. states are expected to experience harmful levels of radiation.

DOH also conducts routine air monitoring for radioactivity and will be able to detect any changes in radiation levels in New York State.

Should people take potassium iodide (KI) for protection?

Elevated levels of radiation are not expected in the United States. Therefore, DOH advises that there is no reason to purchase or take potassium iodide (KI). The NRC also has issued guidance stating that taking KI is not recommended.

KI is a chemical compound that can be used to protect the thyroid gland from exposure to radioactive iodine, only one of many radioactive materials that may be released from a nuclear power plant. KI is only effective at protecting a person's thyroid gland from airborne or ingested radioiodine if taken within a relatively narrow timeframe prior to or after exposure. It does not protect any other organs in the body.

It is important to note that taking KI will not provide long-term protection for a person against radioactivity. Also, KI should not be used as a general health precaution unless high-level radiation exposure is expected and is recommended by health officials.

Potassium iodide can also be harmful to people who have certain medical conditions, including iodine sensitivity or allergies. In many cases, people who have shellfish or seafood allergies or certain skin conditions may have anaphylactic reactions to KI intake.

Should people take other precautions?

Because of the low threat of radioactivity exposure in New York and other U.S. states, the federal government is not advising people to take any special protective measures at this time. Staying informed is the best step for people to take.

Anyone planning on traveling to Asia should check the website for the U.S. Department of State,, to see if there are any travel restrictions in place.

How harmful is radiation?

Radiation is always present in our environment, usually at very low levels known as background radiation. In addition, people who undergo certain medical tests or procedures such as an x-ray are exposed to low-level radiation that is generally not considered harmful.

The levels of radiation being released from the damaged nuclear power plants in Japan are constantly being assessed; however, based on the information available at this time, it is not expected to occur in New York State or impact public health.

DOH will continue to communicate with various federal agencies to determine appropriate steps to take as the situation in Japan evolves, and will issue additional guidance if necessary.

More information is available at: