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Q&A: Radiation risks and potassium iodide

Potassium iodide pills

Californians concerned that radiation from damaged Japanese nuclear power plants could reach the U.S. have rushed to protect themselves by stockpiling potassium iodide. Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske talked to Dr. Glenn Braunstein, director of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s thyroid cancer center and chair of the department of medicine, about the potential risks and benefits of the drug.

Question: How does potassium iodide work?

A: The thyroid gland requires iodine to make thyroid hormone. If one is exposed to radiation, to radioactive iodine, it is taken up by the thyroid and can cause cancer. This is especially a problem in children and adolescents that are exposed, because their thyroids are still growing. The iodine in potassium iodide is what we call “cold,” because it’s not radioactive. The thyroid gland gets saturated with “cold” iodine and can’t absorb the radioactive iodine.

Q: Has potassium iodide proved effective in protecting people from radiation during past disasters?

A: After Chernobyl, with the winds carrying a lot of radioactive iodine downwind, Belarus and Ukraine got a big dose of it and they didn’t have any protection. They saw a hundred-fold increase in thyroid cancer. Poland also got exposed to the cloud but handed out potassium iodide, and there wasn’t an increase in thyroid cancer. So it is effective, but one has to have a substantial danger, which there isn’t here.
Q: Should people in California take potassium iodide now to protect against nuclear radiation from Japan?

A: Absolutely not. The likelihood of having a problem from the Japanese nuclear power plant is very low.

Yes, there is a release of radioactive iodine, but the amount that is being released is substantially lower than after Chernobyl. Even if there was a total meltdown with a large release of radioactive materials, the distance between Japan and California is so great that the radioactivity would be dispersed.

Q: What are the risks associated with taking potassium iodide?

A: If you take it too early, it’s less likely to be effective. You really want to take it 12 hours before the exposure and you want to take a tablet a few days in a row. It does have potential side effects. About 8% of the population have auto-immune thyroid disease — these individuals are very susceptible to getting large iodine loads. It could lead to an imbalance in their thyroid. About 1% of people get rashes; a number of people get nausea and vomiting, primarily from the taste — it’s got very bitter taste. Rarely, there will be allergic reactions. It’s not innocuous. The risk far outweighs the benefit.

Q. What about keeping potassium iodide on hand as a precaution?

A: If they have it on hand and an air raid siren goes off, then they can take it and they don’t have to go to a distribution center. Last year the residents around San Onofre [nuclear power plant] were offered two free pills of potassium iodide, and then there are big stores of potassium iodide around San Onofre in case there’s a problem. There’s nothing wrong with having it — it’s just that there’s no reason they have to panic and run out to get it now. It really galls me to see the profiteers on the Internet taking advantage of people’s fears.


Q&A: What happens if you're exposed to radiation

Transcript: Chat with a nuclear expert on safety

U.S. urges Americans to stay 50 miles from Fukushima complex

Follow Molly Hennessy-Fiske on Twitter @mollyhf

Photo: Potassium iodide pills. Credit: Justin Sullivan /Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (16)

Hello - California crackpots. We dropped 2 huge nuclear bombs on Japan and how much nuclear fallout came to the US? How about fallout from the above ground nuclear tests we did in New Mexico, or in the pacific islands?

It would be better for you who are searching out potassium iodide to go ask your local pharmacist for cyanide. It would protect you from getting radiation poisoning , and protect the gene pool for future generations

How long till the California Legislature passes a "sin tax" on all iodine tablets?

Thank you very much for the public service. I have no thyroid, so I'm safe, but I know about what bothers them.

To Bill Lopez: Do you really think the US government would tell us if we got fallout from nuclear testing in the US and bombing Japan? Of course not. That is why Chemotherapy and radiation therapy is the largest-making money winner in the US. Without it Wall street would probably fall.

Many of my friends are battling cancer. Just lost a husband to it. I don't know of (1) family that is not affected.

Just invest in cancer meds and you will be very very rich. So, we are not CA crackpots. I wouldn't run and do anything rash, but I think we are sitting ducks for what the government allows. The truth is that cancer is on the rampage. Why? What have we all been exposed to?

Actual information! Cool!

I have looked at the advertisements for Potassium Iodide, which as you have noted range in price from reasonable to ridiculous depending (I suppose) on the scruples of the reseller.... While I am not willing to panic yet, I wouldn't mind having enough of the stuff on hand in the event they do become necessary, however, while this article gives the timing information, it doesn't actually say just how much of a dose (in terms of mg's) it would actually require to do the job. Anyone know????

Radiation attempts

1. To Marianne: Cancer is a problem of the western world, in developing countries people are hardly confronted with breast cancer or prostate cancer.
Why? We are exposed to A LOT: first of all our nutrition, many eat industrially produced food, pestizides are heavily used, we eat a lot of sugar, many of us are overweight - consumers should really start to rethink their shopping decisions...

2. Here in Middle Europe the fear/anger/disinformation of Tschernobyl is still in our memories, children should not play in the garden (10oo miles away from it!) - I can see the level of radiation in my town in the internet (it is measured twice a day), something like that must exist in the US too???
What have we learned in 25 years? Nothing.

Maybe we should take our anger and start a revolution, a green one...

We the consumers are not aware of the exact numbers when it comes to radiation and iodide. You said the radiation is not high enough to affect us. What is the natural occurring radiation? What are the radiation levels going to be when the Japanese wind will hit California? What is the radiation level the human being can outstand without absolutely no harmful effect? How much can iodide help? Give us exact numbers and if the risk of contamination is non existent then we'll stop buying iodide. But since you're all giving us partial info, contradictive at times, to me that means one thing: buy iodide as soon as possible, as much as possible, no matter what the price label is!

The Los Angeles evacuation plan calls for everyone to leave town on the 405 fwy, and Goldenstate freeway....

>The truth is that cancer is on the rampage. Why? What have we all been exposed to?

60 to 70% of all cancers are self inflicted: Smoking, bad nutrition, exposition to other carcinogens. McD and the other junk food places cause more cancers today than the nuclear experiments during the cold war, or Chernobyl, or Fukushima.

You do recognize that this is only good for avoiding Thyroid Cancer in the future? It won't do anything to protect the rest of your body from Radiation.

There should be dosage information on the bottle. You, if Adult, should require between 130-140 mg once-a-day as directed. Taking more won't make you any more protected. Dosage for Children/Adolescents varies and is dependent on their weight. Geeze, you'd think that you would know how to use this stuff before buying it..

The good news is that Iodine-131, the only reason to even bother taking Potassium-iodide, has a half-life of around 8 days. You figure out what that means instead of having the rest of us do your homework.

Regarding the first post: Not only insulting, but inaccurate- We (United States) dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. they were small. the writer is correct that radiation threat at distance was minimal, not only were the weapons (the only nuclear weapons used in wartime) small from the pont of view of nukes, but they were detonated at altitude, which had the dual purpose of maximizing their potential for damage on the ground but at the same time minimizing the production of radioactive material dispersal.

It is correct that there is no conceivable need for those on the American West coast or inland to require iodine supplements due to the tragedy in Japan.

Radiation has an accumulative effect. What we are getting now is light, because the initial explosion didn't have as much contaminants as what is coming our way in the next few weeks. Chernobyl screwed up Europe (Ireland suspended all dairy consumption and fresh veg for a time) in 10 days. This mess is about 24 times larger than the Chernobyl event.

And the innocents are left to deal with this on their own. Sigh.

Let us not forget about this storm that's passing through Southern California from the Pacific Ocean. Who knows how much radiation is being poured on our heads even as I type this. However, it could be worse, we could be sitting in Japan experiencing the radiation and detruction first hand. God bless those poor souls.

will be flying over Japan, particularly Toky0, on a flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Understand that the airborne radiation mostly stays in the lower atmosphere (up to 37,000 feet). The plane will be at 33,000-35,000 feet. So there will be some additional radiation in the air that the plane takes in and recirculates. In addition, there is radiation from the sun because of being at that altitude. Does the airborne radiation from the nuclear disaster warrant taking potassium iodine? If so, how would I get it in Thailand where I do not have a physician as I am a tourist here?


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