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SEATTLE (Reuters) - Fears of transpacific nuclear fallout from Japan's reactor crisis have sent consumers scrambling for radiation antidotes across the ocean on the west coast of the United States and Canada.
But health authorities said on Tuesday that fears are unwarranted and warned that people will expose themselves to other medical problems by needlessly taking potassium iodide that they hope will protect them from cancer.
Adding to the confusion were mixed messages from top U.S. federal government officials over the use of iodide.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters he didn't see a necessity for buying tablets but added "it's a free country", while U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin didn't dismiss it.
"It's a precaution. You mean stocking up here? I haven't heard that. But, I mean, it's a precaution," Benjamin told reporters during a tour of the San Francisco area.
Drug stores and holistic clinics from California to British Columbia have seen a sharp increase in demand for potassium iodide and other potential antidotes to radiation since the Japanese reactor crisis began.
"People are scared and fearful and worried they don't know what's going on," said Leah Adangfry, store manager and herbalist at Seattle's Rainbow Natural Remedies, which is compiling a waiting list.
Potassium iodide is a common form of salt, similar to table salt. It can protect the thyroid gland from radiation and cancer caused by radioactive iodine. Known chemically as KI, it saturates the gland with non-radioactive iodine, reducing how much dangerous radioactive iodine it can absorb.
Japan has distributed supplies in the area of the stricken Fukushima plant, where authorities are struggling to prevent a catastrophic radiation release since it was damaged by last week's deadly 9.0 earthquake.
U.S. and Canadian authorities say there is little risk of major radioactive exposure on their west coasts, Hawaii or Alaska, because the vast distance the radioactive particles would have to travel across the ocean.
It would take five or six days for the radioactive particles to reach the coast, "by which time it would be so dispersed as to be not considered a health risk," said Perry Kendall, the Canadian province's chief health officer.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in British Columbia on Tuesday, said officials do not see "any scenario where this presents a risk to the area,"
Most drug stores do not normally keep potassium iodide in stock and sell it by prescription only, and they are telling people they do not really need it.
"We're trying to calm people down and tell them there is no need to panic," said John Tse, a vice president who oversees pharmacy operations at London Drugs, which operates stores across western Canada.
Medical authorities warn that taking potassium iodide can bring its own unwanted medical side effects, so they are pleading with people not to use it now when they do not need it or store it for future use.
California officials told people not to purchase potassium iodide, warning it only works for those close to a "nuclear event" and can dangerous to be people with allergies to shellfish or thyroid problems.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommends states with people living within a 10-mile radius of a commercial nuclear power plant keep a stockpile of potassium iodide as a precaution.
Additional reporting and writing by Allan Dowd in Vancouver; editing Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman