Should West Coasters Stockpile Potassium Iodide To Protect Against Radiation?
Apparently, San Francisco and LA health food stores are selling out of potassium iodide supplements because people in California (as well as other West Coast areas) are freaking out about the possibility of radiation fallout from the nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. I’ve already received emails from concerned parents warning me to feed my daughter miso soup with seaweed to help protect her, and the Whole Foods stores around here are selling out as people stockpile potassium iodide, which is sometimes used as a way to protect the fragile thyroid gland from radiation exposure. Prices of the supplement are skyrocketing on Ebay auction sites, and my Twitter followers are all atwitter about how they’re heading inland to try to escape the possibility of radiation exposure.
Hold on a minute! Did I miss something? Is the sky falling down?
Sounds like the swine flu scare all over again to me. Remember when everyone was stockpiling Tamiflu? Jeez.
When I first joined Twitter back in April of 2009, the news about the swine flu epidemic had just broken, and everyone on Twitter was wigging out. I had only been on Twitter for one day when I found myself thrown into a maelstrom of fear and misinformation as people began spreading panic like wildfire.
Are we doing it again?
According to the LA Times, “There is no threat to California at this time," said Mike Sicilia, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health. "It's a matter of distance. Dangerous radioactivity could not cross the 5,000 miles of the Pacific without petering out."
Fielding also said that his office checked local government stockpiles of potassium iodide and, “If risk of radiation exposure became an issue, there would be plenty of warning and opportunity to obtain the medication."
We’re So Quick To Freak Out
It doesn’t help that Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who was visiting the Bay area, put in her two cents to suggest that stocking up on potassium iodide was a good idea. NBC Bay Area reporter Damian Trujillo asked her about the run on potassium iodide tablets, and apparently, Dr. Benjamin said that she did not think that would be an overreaction. “We have to be prepared,” Benjamin told the local NBC affiliate. “We need to be as proactive and as energetic as we can to try and save lives and keep people healthy.”
At the same time, other public health officials are suggesting this is unnecessary. Kelly Huston of the California Emergency Management Agency, said, "Even if we had a radiation release from Diablo Canyon (in San Luis Obispo County), iodide would only be issued to people living within a 10-mile radius of the plant."
In this article, Jonathan E. Fielding, MD, MPH, health officer for Los Angeles County, said, "I want to stress that there is no reason to purchase potassium iodide at this time."
Why Potassium Iodide?
Following a nuclear event, cancer-causing radioactive iodine may become airborne, so that it can be breathed into the lungs. Radioactive iodine may also wind up inside the body from contaminated food and water. When radioactive junk winds up in the body internally, “internal contamination” has occurred. According to the CDC, “in the case of internal contamination with radioactive iodine, the thyroid gland quickly absorbs this chemical. Radioactive iodine absorbed by the thyroid can then injure the gland. Because non-radioactive potassium iodide acts to block radioactive iodine from being taken into the thyroid gland, it can help protect this gland from injury.”
In plain English, the thyroid gland can’t tell the difference between radioactive iodine that could be released in a nuclear disaster and non-radioactive potassium iodide, so it effectively blocks absorption of this thyroid-toxic chemical by competing with the same binding sites.
But it’s not some panacea. It’s important to understand what potassium iodide can’t do. The CDC also says, “Potassium iodide (KI) cannot prevent radioactive iodine from entering the body. KI can protect only the thyroid from radioactive iodine, not other parts of the body. KI cannot reverse the health effects caused by radioactive iodine once damage to the thyroid has occurred. KI cannot protect the body from radioactive elements other than radioactive iodine—if radioactive iodine is not present, taking KI is not protective.”
Why Not Just Take It?
Those with thyroid issues can have issues if they take potassium iodide, and it’s potentially very allergenic, so this supplement should be reserved for those who really need it. Over dosage can cause iodine toxicity, leading to burning in the mouth, throat, and stomach, as well as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and in severe cases -- coma. Remember, this only helps those who have been internally contaminated -- which usually requires being very close to the radiation source and is highly unlikely to be necessary in this situation.
If you’re worried, why not fill up on healthy, iodine-rich foods (assuming you don’t have thyroid issues)? Sea vegetables such as kelp, yogurt, cow’s milk, fish, shrimp, eggs, and strawberries are all rich in iodine.
You Just Can’t Live In Fear
I know it's terrifying any time someone says the word "nuclear." I know many of us grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, and this triggers of deepest terror. I know you love your families and you want to do anything you can to protect yourself and those you love. But you just can't live in fear.
You have a choice. You can either run around like a headless chicken, hightailing it to the closest pharmacy so you can buy hundreds of bottles of potassium iodide, while you constantly wonder when the world will cave in, or you can do your best to be informed -- then take a deep breath -- and let it go.
As I teach in my free Get Out Of Your Own Way mini e-course, I choose to have faith, to live fully and joyfully until my time comes. I choose to release fear and live for today, to be safe but take risks, to send The Gremlin of panic to time out and choose peace.
Yes, the world can be a scary place, and we can delude ourselves into thinking we can control it by doing things like stockpiling potassium iodide.
But ultimately, the only thing certain is uncertainty.
So take a deep breath. And let go of fear. As Mary Oliver says, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?"
For more recommendations about potassium iodide, read the CDC guidelines here.
For updates, follow me on Twitter. I’ll try to keep you informed as things evolve.
Committed to keeping you calm -- and informed,
Lissa Rankin, MD
Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.com, Pink Medicine Woman coach, motivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.