In the past couple of days, as many of us around the world began thinking seriously about the fallout from the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan, I’ve gotten lots of questions about potassium iodide pills—”Why do people take them?”, “How do they work?”, “Should my family take them?”
I’ve spoken with several health physicists—researchers at American universities and at the Mayo Clinic—and I think that I can now answer these questions well enough to post something to BoingBoing. This is a scary, nerve-wracking topic for a lot of people, so I’m not going to bury the information down in a narrative. We’ll just get right to the point. In fact, I think that I can clear up most of the confusion by answering four questions.
What are potassium iodide pills?
Basically, potassium iodide is just a specific kind of salt. Nothing fancy. The same stuff is often put into table salt as a way to get iodine into the diets of people who don’t eat much naturally iodine-containing food. Iodine, itself, is an element that’s important to the human body. Without it, the thyroid gland can’t make certain hormones. If you don’t eat enough iodine, especially as a kid, you’ll end up with goiters, fatigue, depression—and worse. Thanks to iodized salt (and diverse diets), those of us who live in industrialized nations don’t have to think about whether we’re getting enough iodine. And, thus, we don’t think too much about potassium iodide. Until there’s a risk of radioactive fallout.
How do potassium iodide pills protect against radiation?
Elements come in two forms: Stable and radioactive, the latter of which are prone to breaking apart, shooting out particles that can damage cells and DNA. There’s good ol’ stable iodine—the stuff that keeps our bodies functioning properly. And there’s radioactive iodine—which is dangerous.
Radioactive iodine is dangerous precisely because, within the human body, it does the same thing that stable iodine does. It goes straight to the thyroid gland.
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