As you know, last Thursday Japan was hit by a massive earthquake and devastating tsunami, which killed many thousands and caused overwhelming property damage — including damage to some of Japan’s nuclear power plants. Three Japanese nuclear reactors have exploded, releasing some radioactive particles into the atmosphere.
The chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced today that because of the design of the reactors in Fukushima Daiichi and the nature of the accident, there is “a very low probability” of harmful radiation affecting the US, including Hawaii or US territories.
Nevertheless, I have been asked by several patients if there is any medication that can be taken to protect oneself against sickness caused by exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.
First of all, it is important to understand that there are different kinds of radiation, and some are more harmful than others. For example, some can easily penetrate skin, while others can’t; some break down very quickly, while others last for thousands of years.
The human thyroid gland is particularly vulnerable to radioactive iodine (radioiodine). In the areas most heavily affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the incidence of thyroid cancer increased 100-fold, compared to the pre-Chernobyl rate.
A great deal of medical research has been conducted on the use of potassium iodine (KI), establishing its effectiveness in preventing thyroid cancer in the event of exposure to radioactive iodine. Potassium iodine is chemically similar to ordinary table salt, but when taken in the proper dosages, it can prevent or reduce the amount of radioactive iodine absorbed by the thyroid gland.
Specific guidance on dosage is provided by the U.S. Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration. Those at greatest risk of harm from exposure to radioactive iodine are infants, young children, and pregnant and lactating women. Dosages increase with a person’s age and size. Ideally KI should be taken four hours prior to and throughout the period of exposure. The best protection, of course, is to seek shelter that prevents any direct exposure to radioactive materials.
KI can be purchased without a prescription, and if taken as directed, side effects are rare. If you have a thyroid condition, it is best to discuss with your doctor before taking.
For more information, please review the following publications: Frequently Asked Questions about Potassium Iodide by The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA); Potassium Iodide as a Thyroid Blocking Agent in Radiation Emergencies issued by the US FDA & Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) and A Fact Sheet on Potassium Iodide (KI) issued by the Health Physics Society.Print this page