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Scammers Target Radiation Fears

Websites hawk drugs, devices that Americans don't need

Japan's nuclear crisis has caused a different type of fallout on this side of the Pacific Ocean: Scammers eager to make money — or just create fear — by fueling unwarranted concerns that dangerous levels of radiation have spread in the winds to the United States.

Already, some Americans are rushing to drugstores to buy out supplies of over-the-counter potassium iodide (KI) supplements, which can protect against thyroid cancer. But health officials say there is no need for KI, because no significant radiation hazard has been detected.

The Food and Drug Administration worries that ads for "anti-radiation" pills showing up on the Internet could be scams seeking to profit from the Japan nuclear scare.

"The FDA is alerting consumers to be wary of Internet sites and other retail outlets promoting products making false claims to prevent or treat effects of radiation or products that are not FDA-approved. These fraudulent products come in all varieties and could include dietary supplements, food items, or products purporting to be drugs, devices or vaccines," that agency warned in a statement.

Bogus emails are making the rounds, including one purportedly from the Los Angeles Fire Department. Under the headline "Acid Rain Precautions," it warns that "if it rains today or in the next few days, do not go in the rain. If you get caught out, use an umbrella or raincoat. Even if it's only a drizzle, radioactive particles which may cause burns, alopecia [hair loss] or even cancer."

In reality, it was sent by spammers. "The County of Los Angeles Fire Department has not issued this statement nor do we believe the statements within the email to be factual," says spokesman Jon O'Brien.

Avoid panic and pills

Meanwhile, U.S. government agencies are trying to calm worried Americans. The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy issued a joint statement on Friday saying that "no radiation levels of concern have been detected."

The previous day, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Greg Jaczko said, "We don't see any concern from radiation levels that could be harmful here." And scientists seem to agree, noting that radiation released from Japan's stricken nuclear reactors did not reach the upper atmosphere, where it could be carried by the jet stream in amounts to cause harm in western U.S. states.

The three FDA-approved KI anti-radiation products — Iosat tablets (made by Anbex), ThryoSafe tablets (by Recipharm AB) and ThyroShield Solution (by Fleming & Company Pharmaceuticals) — should be administered only after radioactive material is inhaled or ingested, according to the FDA.

Next: More deceptions to avoid. >>

But according to the FDA: "There is no public health event requiring anyone in the U.S. to take KI because of the ongoing situation in Japan."

In any case, KI only helps guard against radiation-caused thyroid cancer. It provides no protection against radioactive materials in other parts of the body. And KI comes with side effects, including intestinal upset, possibly severe allergic reactions and inflammation of the salivary glands, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some state health agencies have already issued warnings, with more expected this week, against taking KI or prescription products such as Prussian Blue, which can help in grave radiation exposure cases.

Protection detection

Other things to avoid, as Japan continues to grapple with its disaster:

  • Offers for other radiation protection products. Scammers might soon be trying to sell fraudulent protective suits, radiation "food monitors" or other grifting gizmos.

  • Emails from strangers that provide a link promising photographs or video from the disaster. This is a common ruse to infect your computer with viruses, some of which can give scammers remote access to your data.

  • Scam charities. Don't make a donation, whether by Internet, phone or door-to-door solicitation, until you authenticate the legitimacy of the organization. See this previous AARP Bulletin article on Japan scams.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.

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