Some Arizonans Freak Out Over Japan Reactor News, Others May Suffer Real Consequences of State's Past Radioactive Spills

Radiation from Japan shouldn't be your worry -- but maybe the sources of radiation here in Arizona should.

Health stores have reportedly seen a run on potassium iodide in the last couple of days. But experts including Aubrey Godwin, director of the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency, say Arizonans wouldn't need the radiation treatment even in a worst-case scenario. In any case, the radiation hasn't gotten here yet, he says.

But in response to our questions, (thanks to commenter ExpertShot, for the idea), Godwin acknowledges that various spots around the state may be polluted with higher-than-natural radiation from past uranium mining and spills.

"It would be sort of nice" to monitor radioactivity on the Navajo Nation, Godwin says. "The state can't afford to do anything."

As for the state's other potentially radioactive sites, "the people of the state will pay for whatever they want done."

The locations of all the sites isn't known, he adds. And as for the danger? He can't say, "since I don't know what the levels are."

The Navajo Nation, which straddles New Mexico and northeastern Arizona, was the site of the worst radioactive spill in U.S. history. A dam that broke on July 16, 1979, sent about 100 million gallons of radioactive water flowing down the Puerco River near Church Rock, New Mexico, and on into Arizona.

The reservation is a quasi-sovereign nation, under the authority of the U.S. government. That means there's only so much the state can do, Godwin says.

Besides the uranium-mining problem, the state's also supposed to be checking on the radiation from the x-ray equipment used in hospitals and clinics.

"We're behind on those inspections, also," he says.

So what does the agency actually do? Godwin says it registers all the users of x-ray, license all users of radioactive material -- except for nuclear power plants, which the feds oversee. If a radiation emergency ever came up -- knock on lead -- ARRA is supposed to respond.

The agency has a yearly budget of about $2 million in state funding, and also uses some federal funds, he says.

Okay -- now onto the fear part: Godwin and other state officials say Arizonans are "safe from dangerous radiation" blowing in from Japan and definitely shouldn't take potassium iodide.

A plume coming toward the southwestern United States hadn't reached Arizona when we talked with Godwin this morning. But the radiation in the plume "is not much different than people experience on a cross-country flight," a news release by three state agencies states. State and federal agencies say "thre is no risk expected to Arizona or its residents as a result of the situation in Japan."

"We are worried that people are taking medication that they don't need and could create problems for themselves," says state Department of Health Services Director Will Humble in the release.

Navajos and possibly other Arizonans, though, may have a real problem.