What You Should Know about Potassium Iodide and Atomic Fallout
The Nuclear Power Industry’s Historic Delay for Civilian Protection
On December 10, 2001 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) renewed its call for the widespread stockpiling of a thyroid-blocking medicine that prevents the absorption of radioactive iodine. Following the FDA announcement the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ended its long-standing debate over the civilian stockpiling of potassium iodide (KI). The NRC declared that it will fund civilian supplies for one to two doses per individual for persons within the current 10-mile emergency planning zone of every nuclear power station in the US. The American Thyroid Association had also urged the federal government to distribute KI with a particular focus on the vulnerability of children’s thyroid glands caught downwind of a radioactive iodine release from a nuclear power plant accident or sabotage. The nuclear industry and the NRC had previously argued against KI distribution saying it would be too hard to administrate and hinder more practical civilian evacuations in the event of an accident. In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and NRC revised their policy directing states to consider KI stockpiling and distribution.
In December 1978, the FDA first announced that it had determined that KI was safe and effective as a thyroid protection medicine in the event of a nuclear accident. At that time the agency was essentially ignored by NRC and FEMA neither of which took action to make KI publicly available. Three months following the FDA recommendation the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station had a core melt accident on March 28, 1979. On March 30, 1979 an FDA official arranged an emergency purchase order to Mallinckrodt Chemical Company for the immediate production of 250,000 doses of potassium iodide to begin distribution in Pennsylvania 24 hours later. It was President Carter’s “Kemeny Commission” investigation into the aftermath of TMI that was first critical of the NRC’s failure to take precautionary action by distributing adequate supplies of the thyroid protection medicine. The nuclear power industry would successfully lobby the NRC and FEMA against KI distribution for another 23 years to prevent a nationwide thyroid protection plan. Today, state governments are only beginning to implement a new NRC/FEMA guidance plan for KI distribution.
The government foot dragging stems more from nuclear industry’s concerted effort to protect its “safe power” image than protect the American public from a potential accident. Following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power accident in Ukraine, the Polish government was prepared to distribute KI to millions of Poland’s children with apparent success in reducing the number of thyroid cancers and abnormalities that now plague other less fortunate populations in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine not afforded the medical protection. While every nuclear power plant operator in the United States has stockpiled enough KI for its employees and emergency workers entire communities including children in our homes, daycare centers and schools are being denied the same level of immediate protection.
How KI Protects The Thyroid Gland From Radioactive Iodine Releases
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the base of the neck. While especially important to children for producing growth hormone, the thyroid gland also produces hormones which influence essentially every organ, every tissue and every cell in the body regulating the body's metabolism and organ function, affecting heart rate, cholesterol level, body weight, energy level, muscle strength, skin condition, menstrual regularity, memory and many other conditions. To make thyroid hormone, the thyroid gland uses dietary iodine and supplements in salt, water and other sources.
Radioactive Iodine-131 generated in nuclear power plants is a major human health concern in an airborne release from a damaged reactor because its mobility and radioactivity, having an 8 day half-life. Radioactive iodine is quickly absorbed and concentrated by the thyroid. Researchers have consistently reported that children who were exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster are developing an aggressive form of thyroid cancer sooner and in larger numbers than expected. Children are particularly susceptible to thyroid cancer from radioactive iodine because their thyroid glands are small and concentrate the iodine from radioactive fallout because they drink more milk and get larger doses of radioactive iodine and because their thyroids are thought to be more vulnerable to radiation.
Potassium iodide, if taken prior to the passage of the radioactive plume, saturates the thyroid gland with non-radioactive iodine and blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine so that it can be excreted. Prophylactic doses of KI can thus prevent thyroid cancers and other thyroid diseases that might otherwise be caused by exposure to radioactive iodine dispersed in a severe nuclear accident or sabotage. While KI is considered by the FDA to be safe and effective enough for over-the-counter distribution, the necessary dosage levels and duration of KI uptake are still considered a medicine by the American Thyroid Association and people are advised to consult a physician and pediatrician for appropriate dosages.
Potassium Iodide Does Not Protect Against All Radiation Exposure
The stockpiling of KI should be viewed as an important precaution for communities downwind of nuclear power plants. But radioactive iodine is only one of many radioactive by-products that would be simultaneously released from a damaged reactor. For example, a release would also contain radioactive fallout of cesium-137 and strontium-90 each with a half-life of 30 years.
While broadly categorized as an “anti-radiation” pill, KI does not protect populations caught downwind from these other long-lived radioactive isotopes. People caught under a passing radioactive cloud would also be exposed to whole body doses of harmful gamma rays and potentially lethal radiation sickness. Inhalation and ingestion of other radioactive gases and particulate would cause cancers and diseases in the lungs, digestive system, blood and reproductive organs.
For further information contact: Nuclear Information and Resource Service,
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