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Brigham Expert: Why Not To Buy Iodine Pills

Children in Kawamata, Japan, take potassium iodide

People are doing it already, perhaps mainly West-Coasters concerned about what the Pacific winds will bring. The Wall Street Journal reports here:

Supplies of potassium iodide, a preventive against radiation poisoning of the thyroid gland, are running low at some manufacturers, as Americans seek protection amid fears that radiation from Japan could head to the U.S., according to the companies.

One leading supplier, Anbex Inc., quickly sold out of its supply of more than 10,000 14-tablet packages on Saturday, said Alan Morris, president of the Williamsburg, Va., company.

He said the closely held firm was getting about three orders a minute for $10 packages of its Iosat pills, up from as few as three a week normally.

“Those who don’t get it are crying. They’re terrified,” said Mr. Morris. The company tells callers that the likelihood of dangerous levels of radiation reaching the U.S. is low, but some callers, particularly on the West Coast, remain afraid, Mr. Morris said.

Interest is also high at Fleming Pharmaceuticals, a St. Louis County company that makes potassium iodide in liquid form. “It actually has been insanity here,” said Deborah Fleming Wurdack, a co-owner.

So let’s all take a deep breath, with the help of Dr. Richard Zane, vice chair of emergency medicine at Brigham & Women’s and an expert on disaster preparedness. He offers two main points:

-The risk that the radiation emergency in Japan will lead to the need for Americans here to take potassium iodide is “remarkably low,” he said.
-And if something should happen that would indeed require taking potassium iodide or any other intervention for radiation exposure, “there are remarkably robust plans in place in the United States for mass care and mass pharmaceutical distribution.”

(NPR’s Scott Hensley explains here how iodine tablets can help in a radioactive zone.)

A couple of Rich Zane’s other points about potassium iodide: It prevents your thyroid from absorbing radiation and thus may prevent future thyroid cancer, but it only protects the thyroid, no other organ. “It is done because it’s something we know we can do and it works to a certain degree,” he said.

And its utility depends on how susceptible a person is, based on many factors, including age, exposure, distance, and whether they’re shielded from the radiation. “Let me reiterate, the likelihood is exceedingly low, and there are robust plans in place for mass screening and distribution if there’s a need,” he said. Continue reading