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Potassium Iodide: When Not to Use It

Potassium Iodide: When Not to Use It: Main Image
Only take KI for radiation protection if you are in a contaminated area and have been instructed to do so by health officials

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    The recent tragedy in Japan has reminded the world of potential health threats from nuclear radiation, and attention has turned to potassium iodide (KI), a supplement that is known under certain conditions to protect the body from certain radiation effects. However, it is important that people take the time to learn when and how KI may be used effectively and safely, since there is no cause to believe that anyone outside the affected area in Japan should be taking KI, and the risk of taking it could outweigh the benefits.

    How does KI work?

    For people exposed at close range to large amounts of radioactive material, taking potassium iodide tablets can be very important. Radioactive iodine is one of the materials released after a nuclear accident. The thyroid gland actively takes up and stores iodine, including radioactive forms of the mineral, and exposure to large amounts of radioactive iodine can increase the risk of developing thyroid cancer.

    Taking a large amount of nonradioactive iodine (in the form of KI) prior to massive radiation exposure saturates the thyroid gland with iodine and thereby prevents radioactive iodine from entering the gland. This protective effect lasts about 24 hours, so the drug has to be taken daily during a period of intense radiation exposure in order to be effective.

    Potassium iodide does not protect against the adverse effects of other radioactive compounds released during a nuclear accident, such as radioactive cesium.

    What is the current radiation danger?

    So far, health officials report an insignificant amount of radiation reaching the West Coast of the US. For example, the radiation dose a person normally receives from rocks, bricks, and the sun is 100,000 times the amount coming from Japan.

    In contrast, the risks associated with daily use of large doses of potassium iodide are not insignificant. Long-term use of high doses of this compound can cause acne, headaches, and other side effects, and occasionally leads to thyroid abnormalities such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Because the amount of radioactive iodine currently reaching the US from Japan is so small, the risks associated with taking potassium iodide for radiation protection probably outweigh the benefits.

    What about taking extra iodine in the form of iodized salt?

    The amount of iodine added to table salt is so small that it would be physically impossible to consume enough salt for it to protect against radiation. Further, high salt intake carries its own risks of adverse effects, so eating more salt is not recommended as a method of protecting against radioactive iodine.

    When should I use it?

    According to all of the available evidence, the reactor accident in Japan is not a threat to the US population, and the use of KI tablets is not currently recommended. People should only take KI for radiation protection if they live in contaminated areas and have been instructed to do so by health officials. The adult dose of KI for protection against radiation is 130 mg per day, which is nearly 700 times the Recommended Dietary Allowance for iodine.

    Are there other protections against radiation?

    In areas exposed to dangerous radiation levels, authorities will recommend that people stay indoors with all the doors and windows closed and sealed until the threat passes. The walls of buildings provide some degree of protection against radiation, especially those that are tightly sealed, as this prevents radioactive particles from the passing air from entering the house.

    Alan R. Gaby, MD, Chief Medical Editor

    An expert in nutritional therapies, Chief Medical Editor Alan R. Gaby is a former professor at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, where he served as the Endowed Professor of Nutrition. He is past-president of the American Holistic Medical Association, served as a member of the Ad-Hoc Advisory Panel of the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine, and gave expert testimony to the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine on the cost-effectiveness of nutritional supplements. Dr. Gaby has conducted nutrition seminars for physicians and has collected over 30,000 scientific papers related to the field of nutritional and natural medicine. In addition to editing and contributing to The The Natural Pharmacy (Three Rivers Press, 2006) and the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Three Rivers Press, 2006), Dr. Gaby has authored Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima Lifestyles, 1995) and Nutritional Medicine (2011), a comprehensive textbook he worked on for 30 years.