Potassium Iodide: How Iodine Pills Protect Against Radiation
Potassium Iodide: What Is It?
Potassium Iodide is a chemical with the formula KI, containing a positively charged Potassium ion and a negatively charged Iodine ion. Potassium Iodide is the ingredient added (in low levels) to iodized salt, and is also the chemical in the non-prescription Iodine pills used for radiation exposure.
Potassium Iodide for protection against radiation exposure comes in liquid form and pill form. In the United States, the two FDA approved brands for adults are Iostat ® (Anbex, Inc.) and Thyro-Block ® (Medpointe, Inc.). Thyrosafe ® (Recip US) is the FDA approved liquid form of Potassium Iodide manufactured at a lower dosage, for children or others with low body weight. The liquid form is generally formulated for young children.
Who Should Have Potassium Iodide Pills?
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommends that any individual living within 10 miles of a nuclear power facility should keep Potassium Iodide pills on-hand in case of accidental meltdown.
In the wake of the 2011 nuclear power plant meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, many individuals on the West Coast of the United States rushed out to purchase Potassium Iodide pills. This eliminated many store's stockpiles of the drug, and will not provide any protection, since the radiation from the Japanese meltdown will not reach the United States in sufficient quantities to cause a health problem. In fact, taking Potassium Iodide pills when there is no need can cause serious health problems, particularly for pregnant and lactating women.
How Does Potassium Iodide Work Against Radiation?
In the event of a nuclear power plant meltdown (or other radioactive event), two radioactive forms of Iodine are released: I-129 and I-131. While I-131 is radioactive, it has a very short half-life of 8 days. This means that I-131 will be completely cleared from the environment in a matter of months.
Unfortunately, I-129 is highly radioactive and has a half-life of 15.7 million years: after a nuclear power plant meltdown, it will stay in the environment for a very long time.
The human thyroid will absorb Iodine indiscriminately. If radioactive isotopes of Iodine are inhaled or consumed, the thyroid will take up the isotopes. This radiation is likely to cause cancer, particularly for infants and children. People over the age of 60 are at a lower risk from developing thyroid cancer from radioactive Iodine isotopes.
Fortunately, the human thyroid will only take up a certain amount of Iodine. By giving people Potassium Iodide (a safe version of Iodine), the thyroid fills its receptor sites with the safe version of the element. When the individual is exposed to the radioactive Iodine isotopes, the thyroid cannot take it up, as its Iodine receptors are filled with Potassium Iodide. In this way, the radioactive material passes safely through the body without being taken up by the thyroid. Potassium Iodide pills work best when used within 3-4 hours of exposure.
Why Iodized Salt is Not Sufficient
After the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant incident in March 2011, Chinese citizens began purchasing and hoarding iodized salt. Unfortunately, iodized salt does not contain enough Iodine to prevent radiation poisoning. Even if a person ate 2Kg of iodized salt, they would still not have sufficient Iodine to protect against radiation poisoning. Natural kelp extracts of Iodine are likewise insufficient to meet the needs of those exposed to radiation. The pharmaceutical grade Potassium Iodide pills are specifically formulated with the proper dose of KI to prevent radiation sickness, and these tablets are the only method for obtaining the proper dose.
How Radioactive Iodine Enters the Body
Radioactive Iodine isotopes enter the body through the respiratory system and through the digestive system. After a nuclear meltdown, the initial route of exposure is generally airborne: people breathe in the radioactive Iodine and it enters the bloodstream, where it travels to the thyroid.
The long term exposure danger is through consuming the radioactive Iodine. A large increase in thyroid cancer was detected among people who were children and adolescents at the time of Chernobyl's disaster. Radioactive iodine was deposited into the fields and pastures around the site of the nuclear meltdown, where cows consumed the contaminated grass. Children drank the milk produced by these cows, and the contaminated milk entered their bodies through the gastrointestinal system. Approximately 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been diagnosed in exposed children in the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation.
While Poland was within the fallout range of the Chernobyl disaster, the country provided Potassium Iodide to its citizens. Poland has not seen an increase in thyroid cancer rates, demonstrating that the distribution and use of KI pills is highly effective in protecting victims of radiation exposure.
Chernobyl's Children: A Health Disaster
Where to Buy Potassium Iodide
Potassium Iodide may be purchased directly through the manufacturer, or through other online retailers. The drug is over-the-counter, which means no prescription is required. Potassium Iodide should not be taken when there has been no exposure to radiation. Consult a doctor prior to taking Potassium Iodide pills.
The Dangers of Taking Potassium Iodide Without a Cause
Potassium Iodide is not free from side effects. While the use of Potassium Iodide pills is beneficial to those immediately exposed to radioactive Iodine isotopes, it is not recommended for casual use.
Individuals with an Iodine allergy may have a severe reaction to Potassium Iodide. In infants, Potassium Iodide may cause a skin rash and thyroid problems. Potassium Iodide may make conditions associated with Tuberculosis worse, and can increase the levels of Potassium in the blood: a danger to patients with kidney dysfunction. Potassium Iodide may interfere with other drugs, including Warfarin, Dicumarol, and Acenocoumarol. Breastfeeding mothers will pass the drug along to their newborn infants, and long term use among pregnant women may cause congenital iodide goiter.
People over the age of 40 will not take up the radioactive Iodine as readily as younger individuals. Typically, Potassium Iodide pills are not required for people over the age of 40, unless extremely high radiation levels are encountered. Children and adolescents are at the highest risk from exposure to radioactive Iodine.
Fears of Radiactive Leakage in Fukushima, Japan
Why Prevention of Thyroid Cancer is Necessary
Most people survive thyroid cancer: in the United States, over 90% of affected people become cancer-free after treatment. Some may wonder why there is much anxiety surrounding the potential for the disease from nuclear fallout.
Unfortunately, the post-Chernobyl thyroid cancers were atypical, affecting children under the age of 10 years with an aggressive form of the disease. The cancer survivors may redevelop the cancer at a later time, and will require monitoring and testing for the rest of their lives. The cost and health damage to these children was permanent: a simple preventive treatment with Potassium Iodide would have spared them from the significant health issues associated with having thyroid cancer at a young age.