One doctor's response to a patient's fear of radiation from Japan: For Americans, the risk of exposure is close to zero, and pills can have harmful side effects.

I live 3,000 miles away from Los Angeles, yet I've received several phone calls in the last week from patients seeking prescriptions for potassium iodide. Even in New York City, where I practice, pharmacies are selling out of these pills.

It's all in response to the ominous reports from Japan, where a stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima has been emitting radiation since weathering the twin assaults of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a devastating tsunami. U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin's endorsement of the idea that the public should stock up on the pills as a "precaution" only provoked more fear.

One of my patients, a 62-year-old editor named "Kate," was insistent. She had charted the course that clouds of radiation emanating from northeastern Japan might take.

How do you know that the winds won't blow the radiation from Japan to Hawaii to California to here, she asked me, the anxiety evident in her voice. Don't you think I need to be prepared?

I did my best to fight fear with fact, explaining that the chances of a significant amount of radiation getting even as far as Hawaii were extremely close to zero. She didn't sound reassured.

I pointed out that following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 — the granddaddy of nuclear accidents — clouds of radiation blew from the Ukraine over Europe, but there is absolutely no evidence that it increased cancer rates there as a result. That didn't seem to calm Kate's nerves either.

Nuclear radiation does contain cancer-causing chemical isotopes, including iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium-239. Though plutonium remains in the environment for several thousand years, multiple studies have shown that significant radiation exposure — some reports say as much as 1,000 millisieverts — is required to increase the cancer incidence by even 5%. For the sake of comparison, a chest X-ray exposes a patient to 0.1 millisievert of radiation.

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