Pills that may offer protection during a nuclear emergency are available in York County, but the county's director of emergency management issued a word of caution Friday: Having them doesn't make it OK to ignore evacuation orders or other instructions in the event of an accident.
"People will think, 'I can take this pill and be radiation-proof,' or 'I can take this pill and I don't have to evacuate.' Which is not the case," said Director Cotton Howell. "And that's the fear we have of people trying to rely on a pill."
Howell's warning came a day after plans were announced to make a new shipment of potassium iodide pills available to people who live near the area's two nuclear power plants, the Catawba nuclear station on Lake Wylie in York County and the McGuire nuclear station in Mecklenburg County.
Potassium iodide (known by the chemical symbol KI) helps reduce the risk of thyroid cancer, which can result from exposure to radiation. But the pills aren't a substitute for other precautions, S.C. emergency planners emphasize.
"We don't want (people) to think this is a magic pill," said Mary Nguyen Bright, a nuclear response specialist in the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. "The only thing these tablets do is protect the thyroid gland. That's why we tell people, you must follow all of the orders, including evacuation or shelter."
Howell went a step further, saying he's not sure the pills offer much value because they don't protect other parts of the body. He doesn't keep them at his own house, even though his family lives near McConnells, within a 10-mile radius of the Lake Wylie nuclear plant.
"This came out of Washington a couple of years ago by somebody up there that said, 'We're trying to show we're doing something,'" said Howell. "It's nothing but a form of salt. It's a high-powered table salt."
Howell said that if a nuclear accident occurs, the best precaution will be for residents to either evacuate or stay inside their homes, depending on instructions. Emergency officials have detailed plans for getting instructions to the public through local radio and TV, outdoor sirens, automated phone calls and other outlets, he said.
"These pills are a legacy of the nuclear attack days," Howell said. "During those days, we were talking about anything to protect from high levels of radiation. A release at Catawba is probably not going to be high levels."
Still, S.C. health officials offer the pills free of charge to anyone living in a 10-mile radius of the Lake Wylie plant. They can be picked up at the York County Health Department on Heckle Boulevard.
In 2003, the county held distribution days at six different sites. Less than 5 percent of about 160,000 eligible residents picked up the pills, Howell said. The leftover tablets are available, and won't expire until 2009, Bright said.
Before then, a new batch of pills will be made available, she said.
On Friday, Bright said her office got a handful of calls from nervous residents asking about the threat of some kind of nuclear explosion.
"A lot of people have that Hollywood image," she said. "The mushrooms clouds aren't relevant to nuclear facilities. There is nothing they put into the design that could lead to something like that."
For more information on pill distribution, call DHEC at 1-800-476-9677 or visit yorkcountyoem.com.