Harford residents near Peach Bottom atomic plant need potassium iodide on hand

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An estimated 12,500 Harford County residents live within a 10-mile radius of Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania, and they must always be ready for an emergency, county officials say.

That means having a fresh supply of potassium iodide on hand – to protect against thyroid damage from a radioactive release, Harford County Health Officer Dr. Russell Moy said.

“A lot of folks don’t realize [downtown Bel Air] is only 21 miles away from Peach Bottom nuclear power plant,” Moy told members of the Harford County Council earlier this month during the council’s semi-annual Board of Health update.

“That makes Harford County only one of three Maryland counties that must always be prepared for a nuclear emergency or contingency such as equipment failure,” Moy said.

A large portion of northern Harford County falls within a 10-mile radius of Peach Bottom, called the Emergency Planning Zone, that would be susceptible to explosure from a radioactive plume emitted during an emergency at the plant, Moy said.

The Harford area of the 10-mile radius is divided into five zones: North Harford, Zone 1; Palmer State Park/Dublin/Pylesville, Zone 2; Darlington, Zone 3; Whiteford, Zone 4; and Broad Creek Camp/Peach Bottom, according to a map on Harford County government’s website.

“Special emergency plans have been developed to ensure residents’ safety in the event of a nuclear incident at Peach Bottom,” according to the website.

Schools in the zone include North Harford Elementary, Middle and High, Darlington Elementary, Dublin Elementary and Harford Christian School, according to Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for Harford County government.

The biggest danger during a nuclear exposure from Peach Bottom is the risk of exposure of the thyroid gland.

According to the American Thyroid Association, most nuclear accidents release radioactive iodine into the atmosphere, which can be absorbed into the body. When thyroid cells absorb too much radioactive iodine, it can cause thyroid cancer to develop several years after the exposure. Babies and young children, whose thyroid gland is one of the most radiation-sensitive parts of the body, are at highest risk.

The thyroid gland needs iodine to produce hormones that regulate the body’s energy and metabolism. The thyroid absorbs available iodine from the bloodstream, but the gland cannot distinguish between stable (regular) iodine and radioactive iodine and will absorb whatever it can, according to the ATA.

Potassium iodide will protect against thyroid exposure, Moy said, and urged everyone who lives within the Peach Bottom 10-mile radius to have a fresh supply on-hand “just in case.”

The Harford County Health Department provides potassium iodide pills, which have a shelf life of about three years, free to residents in the Peach Bottom emergency planning zone, he said.

“Awareness is what we’re trying to promote,” Moy said. “Not everybody completely understands the importance of having potassium iodide on hand or the risk of thyroid cancer. It’s not intuitive to a lot of folks.”

The Health Department attends numerous fairs to give out pills and works closely with Harford County Public Schools to have the pills on-hand “because the people most at risk are children,” Moy said.

“We know the schools are well-versed in this, they’re prepared,” he said. “But we need to have the entire population prepared.”

To get more information about potassium iodide or to get potassium iodide doses, contact the Harford County Health Department, 410-838-1500.

The county as a whole also makes sure it’s prepared in case of an emergency by conducting a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) exercise every two years.

“We go through all the steps of what we would do in case of an accident, including decontamination,” Moy said.

Decontamination is very complex, he said, and a lot of people are needed in case there every were an emergency.

FEMA conducted its emergency preparedness exercise at Peach Bottom the week of April 16 “to assess the ability of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of Maryland to respond to an emergency at the nuclear facility,” according to a news release from FEMA.

“These drills are held every other year to evaluate government’s ability to protect public health and safety,” MaryAnn Tierney, regional administrator for FEMA Region III, said in the release. “We will assess state and local emergency response capabilities within the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone as well as the adjacent support jurisdictions within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of Maryland.”

FEMA’s Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program was created to ensure the health and safety of citizens living around commercial nuclear power plants would be adequately protected in the event of a nuclear power plant accident and to inform and educate the public about radiological emergency preparedness, according to FEMA the release.

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