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Dept. of Homeland Security: Nation is ill-equipped to deal with nuclear emergency

The nation’s public health systems are ill-equipped to deal with a major nuclear emergency according to a 2010 analysis by the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security.

ProPublica reports that according to the DHS Strategy for Improving the National Response from an IND [Improvised Nuclear Device] Attack, “current capabilities can only handle a few radiation injuries at any one time,” and, “there is no strategy for notifying the public in real time of recommendations on shelter or evacuation priorities.”

And there is other evidence of gaps in preparedness.

One example: The U.S. Strategic National Stockpile stopped purchasing the best-known agent to counter radioactive iodine-induced thyroid cancer in young people, potassium iodide, about two years ago and designated the limited remaining quantities “excess,” according to information provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ProPublica. Despite this, the CDC website still lists potassium iodide as one of only four drugs in the stockpile specifically for use in radiation emergencies.

Many states don’t have a basic radiation emergency plan for communicating with the public or responding to the health risks. Even something as fundamental as the importance of sheltering inside sturdy buildings to avoid exposure to radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion — which experts say could determine whether huge numbers of people live or die — hasn’t been communicated to the public.

Another problem is that people don’t always respond when offered opportunities to prepare for nuclear emergencies.

Several years ago Michigan, like many other states, sent vouchers for potassium iodide to people living within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear power plant. The goal was to give them the medication free of charge from local pharmacies, so they wouldn’t risk their lives searching for the drug in an emergency, when they should be sheltering in place or evacuating.

But only about 6 percent of the residents picked up their allotted supply, said Fales, the Michigan regional medical director, a rate that’s similar to some other states. “So much for pre-event planning,” he concluded.

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