The recent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini nuclear power plants in Japan have raised questions about the use iodine supplements as effective protection from radioactive iodine I-131 here in Hawai‘i.
So what’s the iodine hype about? One of the substances that can be released in a nuclear accident is radioactive iodine (I-131). You need iodine so the thyroid gland can regulate your metabolism, but the problem is, your body can’t tell the difference between the normal iodine found in your salt shaker and the radioactive variety produced by a wayward nuclear power plant. So the thyroid can absorb radiation from I-131 that makes it into the food supply after a nuclear incident, raising the risk for subsequent thyroid cancer, although the disease may not manifest for decades.
Taking potassium iodide tablets saturates the gland and crowds out I-131 in a chemical competition, so the radioactive stuff has less of a chance to cause damage.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only the unborn and very young are most vulnerable, and people older than 40 shouldn’t take preventive iodine supplements “unless a very large dose of radioactive iodine is expected” and public health officials recommend it. They haven’t.
As in most cases, reacting with fear and panic causes more harm than good—taking these tablets comes with its own risks and side effects. Ingesting a higher dose than is recommended will not provide more protection and can cause severe illness or death. An overdose can cause the thyroid to shut down completely. Only when officials advise the public to take iodine pills following a nuclear event do the benefits outweigh the risks.
Some folks are upset that our president recommends we “take a chill pill.” But I agree. Don’t worry. Don’t panic. Don’t take iodine supplements.
Do your own research, though. I am not a doctor, just your average citizen trying to weave my way through daily life in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.