Various embassies in Japan are passing out potassium iodide tablets as a “precautionary measure” to protect their citizens from radiation exposure in case the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant goes haywire.

The central government, on the other hand, is only dispensing iodide tablets to people in the 20-km evacuation zone near the plant but is ready to distribute more to local residents outside the area.

An official at the health ministry said the tablets are unnecessary for Tokyoites and said the only people who have been instructed to take them are those who have evacuated from the 20-km hot zone.

“In Tokyo, for example, the level of radiation is not even close to a scenario when those tablets would be necessary,” the official said.

“I guess the embassies are taking extra precautions and distributing the tablets from the viewpoint of protecting their citizens,” he figured.

Potassium iodide tablets, which are most effective if taken before or immediately after radioactive exposure, help protect the thyroid gland from internal radiation contamination and last for 24 hours. They help by blocking the gland from absorbing radioactive iodine, which tends to accumulate there.

That in turn lowers the risk of the thyroid developing radiation-related diseases in the future.

It’s best to consult a doctor before taking the tablets if possible because side effects can result from ingesting them, including intestinal upsets and allergic reactions.

Unlike other countries, Japan does not sell iodide tablets over the counter. The government and radiation experts have issued notices stressing the tablets should only be taken in the presence of a doctor.

From the early stages of the scare, the French Embassy began handing out tablets to its citizens. Other embassies have followed suit, including the U.K., U.S., Swiss and Swedish missions. While most embassies have specified that iodide tablets do not need to be taken at present and that citizens will be told when it is necessary, the Swedish Embassy is recommending on its website that citizens within 250 km of the Fukushima plant take them once every three days.

An embassy official was unavailable for comment.

“The recommendation by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority that all Swedes who are staying within a radius of 250 km from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant to take iodide tablets every three days is still valid,” the embassy’s website, last updated Saturday, says. “Best protection against radioactive iodine is to take iodide tablets before the exposure, as doing so afterward will prove too late.”

According to the British Embassy, it has so far handed out about 1,500 doses to British citizens in Sendai, Niigata and Tokyo. But an embassy official added that the embassy considers it unlikely that the tablets will be necessary.

“We make it very very clear that we are giving these medicines out as a precaution,” the official said.

“We have been very clear to explain that this is not for now . . . and that (citizens) will be told by the government of Japan and the embassy when the time is necessary, although we still think that possibility is unlikely.”

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