Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Potassium Iodide

"Primum non nocerum. (First do no harm)"
— attributed to Hippocrates
With Nuclear radiation leaks in Japan, bottles of Potassium Iodide have flown off the shelves of stores around the world. Recently a friend recommended that I encourage others to buy Potassium iodide. I disagreed.

In the late 70's under President Ford, Swine Flu first became a public concern and there was a push to have everyone inoculated against it. However the 1970's swine flu shot caused serious allergic reactions in rare cases. It turned out more people died from the shot than from that occurrence of Swine flu. [This is not the case today where the shot is safer and the flu deadlier.]

Potassium Iodide is similar. Yes its benefits are amazing under certain conditions. But it has side effects and can be dangerous to infants and the elderly.

Let's start with why take Potassium Iodide and what does it do?

Dangerous levels of radiation drop off quickly with distance from the accident. In Tokyo the exposure after 36 hours was equal to eating one banana (banana are high in potassium.) We get radiation all the time from the sky, from granite, from medical X-rays, etc. Fortunately, humans can tolerate a lot of low level radiation spread evenly throughout the body. But radioactive Iodine is different - it is not spread out evenly but concentrates in one spot.

The human Thyroid collects and hoards all Iodine that enters the body. If that Iodine is radioactive, it can kill the thyroid or cause thyroid cancer. [In America the cure for hyper-thyroidism is a large does of radioactive Iodine in a pill to kill the thyroid. The patient then lives on an artificial hormone to replace the thyroid secretions.] Often in the years after nuclear accidents, the only cancer to spike or become epidemic is Thyroid cancer. 

A Potassium Iodide pill blocks radioactive Iodine for 24 hours. The pill must be taken BEFORE radiation exposure to fill up the Thyroid so it has no room to absorb the bad Iodine, allowing the bad Iodine to be excreted from the body. It is VERY effective at preventing Thyroid cancer if taken immediately.

So why not pop a Potassium Iodide pill every day, just in case? The pill also shuts the Thyroid down temporarily. In the very young (under one month) this can affect brain development. Potassium Iodide can reach infants in the womb and newborns through mother's milk.

Adults can be affected in two ways. First - unlikely but serious side effects include: burning mouth/throat, sore teeth/gums, swelling inside the mouth, increased saliva, eye irritation/swollen eyelids, severe headache, swelling of the front of the neck/throat (goiter), confusion, numbness/tingling/pain/weakness of the hands/feet. Rare but very serious side effects include: chest pain, black stools, vomit that looks like coffee grounds, bloody diarrhea.

Second - a Potassium Iodide pill is good for 24 hours and is only meant to be taken once (or at most a few days if advised by emergency authorities). It's a buffer of protection as you evacuate a contaminated area. It is not meant for long term protection. When used repeatedly signs of decreased thyroid gland function include weight gain, cold intolerance, slow/irregular heartbeat, constipation, and unusual tiredness.

Bottom Line

While Potassium Iodide (KI) is very useful when properly used I have many objections to recommending that everyone buy it.

1. The news media is terrible at reporting radiation and loves to scare the public with stories like, "Radiation found in Milk in Massachusetts." This causes panic and results in people taking the KI pills when the risks of the pills outweigh the risks of radiation. You should only take the pills when public health authorities (not the media) recommend it.

2 The pill only works prior to exposure and is dangerous if used long term.

3. The dosage of KI is age dependent. Read the bottle carefully. Taking extra dosage does NOT help and can be dangerous. Adults older than 40 years should not take KI unless public health or emergency management officials say that contamination with a very large dose of radioactive iodine is expected.

4. Ask your doctor before buying to see if you or a family member has a condition that puts you in danger from Potassium Iodide. Also talk to a doctor if you are pregnant or nursing.

5. Lastly - KI is not 100% protection from radiation. It protects only the Thyroid and does nothing for high levels of ration which destroy the entire body. It protect only against radioactive Iodine found in Nuclear accidents. It does not against alpha/beta/gamma radiation of dirty bombs, or nuclear explosions.

If you live near (say 100 miles as the wind blows) a Nuclear Plant, AND you understand the risks of Potassium Iodide AND when to use it, then buy a bottle. Otherwise don't.

Resources:
http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/ki.asp
http://pediatrics.about.com/b/2011/03/16/potassium-iodide-pills.htm
http://blogs.webmd.com/breaking-news/2011/03/potassium-iodide-pills-can-they-protect-you-from-radiation-exposure.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potassium_iodide

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