Using Potassium Iodide Following a Nuclear Incident

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Much has been speculated by sources a lot more knowledgeable than me on the effect of radiation to North America -  and specifically the Pacific coast – if a fuel pool at Fukushima collapses.  Some of these sources are scientists while others are pure speculators.  The truth, most likely, will fall somewhere in between.

Let me say this at the onset. I do not claim to be an expert on radiation and I am not a medical professional.  I am, however, someone who wants to prepare for the worst, weather it means making lifestyle changes or taking preventative measures after the fact.

To that end, I have tried to educate myself on the ins and outs of potassium iodide which is widely advertised to the prepper community as something to have on hand and in our bug-out-bags.  And yes, I do have some myself but other than the leaflet that comes with the package, my own knowledge of KI (the chemical symbol for potassium iodide) is next to none.

Today I submit the results of my research regarding the safe use if potassium iodide along with a list of resources you can use in your own investigation of tactics to follow if and when there is a nuclear incident in your area.

It is All About the Thyroid Gland

The thyroid gland uses iodine to produce hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism.  The problem, as I understand it, is that the thyroid gland will use any iodine that is in a person’s bloodstream and cannot tell the difference between radioactive and non-radioactive forms of iodine. If radioactive iodine is absorbed, energy in the form of radiation is released back into the thyroid in high concentrations. This energy can damage the cells of the thyroid and  may lead to thyroid cancer or other diseases of the thyroid.

thyroid gland

In the event of a nuclear incident, such as a meltdown at Fukushima or an accident at a nearby nuclear plant, a large amount of radioactive iodine will be released into the air.  If this were to happen, potassium iodide would be used to protect, or block, the thyroid from irradiation. Commonly known as “thyroid blocking”, taking potassium iodide before or at the beginning of exposure to radioactive iodine will block the uptake of radioactive iodine.

What Is Potassium Iodide?

Potassium iodide (KI) is a salt of stable iodine that can help block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid gland, thus protecting it from radiation injury.  According to the FDA:

When administered in the recommended dose, KI is effective in reducing the risk of thyroid cancer in individuals or populations at risk for inhalation or ingestion of radioiodines. KI floods the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine and prevents the uptake of the radioactive molecules, which are subsequently excreted in the urine.

So what does this mean?  Stable, non-radioactive iodine in the Potassium Iodide pill will load up the thyroid gland so that there is no space left for the radioactive iodine to be absorbed. The harmful radioactive iodine will then harmlessly be excreted from the body through the kidneys as waste.

What About Risks and Side Effects?

There may be side affects to taking potassium iodide.  Some of these side effects are skin rashes, swelling of the salivary glands, a burning sensation in the mouth and throat, sore teeth and gums, symptoms of a head cold, an upset stomach and diarrhea.

People who are allergic to iodine should not take potassium iodide.  In addition, people who have certain thyroid conditions (such as Graves’ disease, other autoimmune thyroid diseases, and/or a goiter) should be very careful when taking it.  Persons allergic to shellfish could potentially be allergic to potassium iodide as well.

I can not stress this enough:  if you are allergic to iodine or shellfish, or have a thyroid disorder, speak with a trusted medical professional to discuss alternatives to potassium iodide.

What is the Proper Dosage?

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set recommended dosages for individuals based on age.

Less than 1 month old – 16 mg1 month to 3 years – 32 mg3 to 18 years – 65 mgOver 18 years or 150 lbs – 130 mg

According to The Survival Medicine Handbook (my survival medicine bible):

Take the KI tablet once a day for 7-10 days, or longer if prolonged or multiple exposures are expected.  Children should take 1/2 doses.  It is also recommended to consider 1/2 tablets for large dogs and 1/4 tablet for small dogs and cats.

Update:  This reference is referring to the 130 mg tablet.  1/2 = 65 mg.

When should Potassium Iodide be taken?

Potassium iodide should only be taken when directed by public health officials. If there is a public health emergency, you will want to listen to television or radio broadcasts for information and instructions on how best to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Two points.  First, you want to have a working emergency radio that will operate work on battery in the event the grid is down and traditional power sources are unavailable.   Second, you want your own supply ofpotassium iodide so you are not dependent on the government to come around and give you some – or worse – having to stand in line at the pharmacy or other hand-out station.

It is important to note that if a nuclear incident occurs, officials will first determine which radioactive substances are involved before recommending that people take potassium iodide. Potassium iodide will only be recommended when there are significant amounts of radioactive iodine in the air. If radioactive iodine is not present, then taking potassium iodide will not protect you.

If radioactive iodine is present, potassium iodide works best when taken before (about one-half hour) or at the same time of exposure to radioactive iodine. Potassium iodide can still offer some protection even if taken up to 3 hours or longer after exposure.

What is the Shelf Life of KI tablets?

According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

The manufacturer’s of Potassium Iodide must specify an expiration date of the drug on either the package or the individually wrapped tablet. The NRC distributes two tablet strengths of potassium iodide, 130 and 65 mg tablets. The shelf life of IOSAT 130 mg tablets is 7 years and the shelf life of ThyroSafe 65 mg tablets is 6 years.

Potassium iodide tablets are inherently stable and do not lose their effectiveness over time. Manufacturers must label their products with a shelf-life to ensure that consumers purchase safe and useful products.

My opinion, for what it is worth, is that I would rather have fresh potassium iodide tablets in my personal preparedness kit.  They are inexpensive enough ($10 for 14 130MG tabs) so why take a chance?

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