BOSTON — First it was Japan's earthquake. Then the tsunami. Then the specter of nuclear catastrophe.
Now Americans hoarding potassium iodide pills?
In response to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, news organizations have reported that potassium iodide may help prevent thyroid cancer, which can be caused by inhaling radioactive iodine emitted from the out-of-control facility.
Normally, potassium iodide is used to treat thyroid disease. Now, Americans are snatching up the pills, “prompting fears that there will not be adequate supplies in Japan in the event of a larger radiological release,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based environmental organization. Similarly, pharmacists in the United Kingdom have fielded numerous requests for the compound, the BBC reports.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, inadvertently helped fuel the buying frenzy Tuesday, in an off-handed response to a reporter’s question in California. The reporter asked “We're hearing people stocking up on iodine. Is that the extreme, or as you mention, it's a precaution?”
Dr. Benjamin, who had just finished stressing the importance of emergency precautions in any disaster situation, appeared bemused by the question. She said “You mean here [in California]? I haven't heard that. It's a precaution.”
The Department of Health and Human Services later clarified that Dr. Benjamin “said it's always important to be prepared however she wouldn't recommend that anyone go out and purchase KI (potassium iodide) for themselves at this time. She further commented that it's important for residents who have concerns to listen to state and local health authorities.”
Previously, Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, Los Angeles County’s public health chief, had warned people against taking potassium iodide unnecessarily, since it can trigger allergic reactions and side effects.
In a press release, the Union of Concerned Scientists stated: “Given the fact that Japan is thousands of miles from the United States, it is highly unlikely that Americans would be exposed to radioactive iodine from direct inhalation of a plume from the Fukushima nuclear complex. Direct inhalation is the kind of exposure that potassium iodide pills would be most effective against.”
Americans could also be exposed to radioactive iodine from contaminated agricultural products, such as via milk from cows that had ingested it. “Potassium iodide, however, would not be an effective countermeasure in that situation,” the Union of Concerned Scientists stated. “Moreover, federal and state health authorities would test for such contamination and could take products off the market if necessary.”
Radioactive iodine can harmful because of its ability to collect in the human thyroid gland and mutate cells, causing cancer. The isotope has a half-life of about eight days, however, so it breaks down far more quickly than strontium and cesium, which are also released from a nuclear accident.
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