Ravalli County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Sarah Seltzer started getting frantic calls from local residents almost immediately after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan March 11. As the situation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant deteriorated, some western Montanans caved to fears of possible radiation poisoning and created a small rush on potassium iodide.
"We contacted some of the pharmacies here in town to see what the general consensus was, and for some people there was a level of panic," Seltzer says. "They were concerned the levels of radiation wouldn't have dissipated by the time they reached the United States."
Now that rash of fear, punctuated by dozens of calls to local pharmacies, has almost completely died. Last week, Seltzer checked with the pharmacies and notes that "nobody in our community is still looking for that potassium iodide."
That's not to say radioactive material hasn't found its way across the Pacific. The Environmental Protection Agency detected trace amounts of radiation in milk samples from Spokane and water from Boise last week, but not nearly enough to generate concern for public health. In fact, the EPA has sounded like a broken record since it began monitoring radiation levels nationwide on March 17, reiterating once or twice a day that the levels of radiation are "far below levels of concern."
Meanwhile, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services has left data collection entirely to the EPA and its lone radiation monitoring station in Billings. Even county health departments continue to turn exclusively to the agency's daily reports for updates on air and water quality.
Jim Carlson, environmental health director at the Missoula City-County Health Department, shrugs off the notion of any serious health risk to Montana resulting from Japan's stricken plant. There are far more realistic and localized problems when it comes to radiation, he says.
"About half of the homes in Missoula County exceed recommended radon levels, and those risks are significant," Carlson says, explaining that the rough geological nature of the Rockies generates more immediate radiation issues. "It's the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States after smoking. So if there're concerns about radiation, people should be thinking about some of the more mundane things."