Nuclear Attack! Is Potassium
Iodide the Answer?
Caroline Suh, Pharm.D.
Drug Information Practice Resident
University of Maryland School of Pharmacy
September 11th has left many
Americans feeling afraid and confused. Everyday the news is
filled with stories about possible acts of terrorism, anthrax
scares and nuclear threats. People are worried about protecting
themselves and their loved ones against future terrorist attacks.
What is the Government
Doing to Protect You?
Local and federal governments have started buying millions of
doses of potassium iodide to help protect people from radiation
in case of an attack on nuclear power plants. One plan is to
give potassium iodide tablets to people who live within 10 miles
of a nuclear power plant because they are most at risk. So far,
only a few states have stockpiles of potassium iodide including
Vermont, Maine, Alabama, Tennessee and Arizona. New Hampshire,
New York, Maryland and Massachusetts are also interested in
getting supplies of potassium iodide.
Authorities are trying to figure
out the best way to prepare for a nuclear attack such as how
to get potassium iodide to people in time. This is important
because potassium iodide needs to be taken as soon as possible
for the best effect.
Are You Prepared?
During this time of fear and confusion, it is important to be
cautious and to stay informed. Potassium iodide is approved
by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to protect both children
and adults against thyroid cancer in case of a nuclear emergency.
You can buy potassium iodide without a prescription, but it
may not be safe for everyone to take. If there is a nuclear
emergency, you won't have a lot of time to read the label
on the bottle. You need to know which dose to take and all the
important information you need to take potassium iodide safely
The bottom line is that
there are both risks and benefits to taking potassium iodide.
Will Potassium Iodide
Potassium iodide only helps to protect the thyroid gland from
radioactive iodine. This is the kind of radiation that is released
into the air in a nuclear attack or accident in a power plant.
When people breathe in radioactive iodine or eat contaminated
food, it can build up in the thyroid gland and increase the
risk of getting thyroid cancer. The thyroid gland uses a lot
of iodine, so it is the part of your body that is most affected
by radiation. After the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, the number
of people with thyroid cancer was 100 times higher than it had
been before the accident.
The thyroid gland can hold
only a certain amount of iodine. Potassium iodide protects the
thyroid gland by filling it with a safe form of iodine so that
the radioactive iodine cannot get in. If the radioactive iodine
can't get into your thyroid, your body can get rid of it
more quickly and decrease your risk of getting cancer.
Potassium iodide is not
a "magic pill" that can protect against all the harmful
effects of radiation. It can only help protect you against thyroid
cancer. Potassium iodide will not protect you against "dirty
bombs" (also called "suitcase bombs"). This is
because dirty bombs do not release radioactive iodine. Potassium
iodide combined with other safety measures can give you the
most protection in a nuclear emergency.
How Do You Take Potassium Iodide?
For the most protection, potassium iodide should be taken immediately
at the beginning of a nuclear emergency. This will help prevent
radioactive iodine from building up in your thyroid gland.
Potassium iodide can still give you some protection even if
you take it 3 to 4 hours after being exposed to radiation. The
longer you wait, the less protection you will have.
Here are some important facts:
ß One dose of potassium iodide can protect your thyroid
gland up to 24 hours. Don't take more than one dose of potassium
iodide a day. It will not give you more protection because the
thyroid gland can only hold a certain amount of iodine. It will
only increase your chances of getting side effects.
The FDA recommends that potassium iodide
tablets be taken until the risk of radiation has passed and/or
until other safety measures have been set up.
Potassium iodide comes in two different strengths
of tablets. The dose of potassium iodide that is safe and effective
for you and your family depends on age and weight. The FDA recommends
the following doses but always check with your doctor to make
sure that it is safe for you to take potassium iodide. For example,
if you are allergic to iodine, have kidney or thyroid problems,
or are pregnant or breast-feeding you may not be able to take
potassium iodide or you may need a different dose.
Strength of Tablet
|Adults 41yrs and older
|Adults 19 to 40 yrs
|Pregnant or breastfeeding
|Teenagers 13 to 18 yrs
|Children 4 to 12 yrs
|Children 2 months to 3 yrs
| Newborns to 1 month
These doses can be confusing and hard to understand.
During a nuclear emergency, you may not have time to figure
out how much potassium iodide to take. To make sure you know
which doses are safe for you and your family, talk to your doctor
and pharmacist ahead of time.
Normally, potassium iodide should not be used
in very young children or in women who are pregnant of breast-feeding.
But in a nuclear emergency, you and your doctor may decide that
the benefits of 1 dose of potassium iodide outweigh the risks.
Like all medicines, potassium iodide can cause
side effects. The most common side effects of potassium iodide
are tiredness, skin rash, nausea/vomiting, and upset stomach.
Some people may have an allergic reaction to potassium iodide
with symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever, aches and
pains or a rash. These symptoms can occur right away or within
a few hours after taking potassium iodide. If this happens to
you, stop taking potassium iodide and talk to your doctor or
public health official as soon as you can.
Potassium iodide can affect how other medicines
work. Talk to your doctor and pharmacist to find out if you
are taking medicines that would be unsafe to take with potassium
iodide. This way you can avoid any harmful drug interactions.
It is better to have this important information before you need
it in an emergency.
Where Can You Get Potassium Iodide?
Potassium iodide is an over-the-counter medicine. This means
you don't need a prescription to buy it. Anbex, Inc (Iostat)
and Ready Prep (Rad Block) are two of the companies that
make potassium iodide tablets. You can buy potassium iodide
tablets online or in your local pharmacy. Pharmacies don't usually
stock potassium iodide tablets but they can order them for you.
Don't Fall Victim to a False Sense of Security
Think of potassium iodide as a life jacket. You need to wear
a life jacket to protect you from drowning when you are in a
boat. In case of an accident, a life jacket can keep you afloat
but you will need the help of a lifeguard to bring you safely
back to shore.
Like the life jacket, potassium iodide can
give you some protection at the very beginning of a nuclear
emergency. And just like the lifeguard, public health officials
will provide you with the next level of protection by setting
There are still so many unanswered
questions that can affect the decisions made during a nuclear
emergency. For example:
What effect will wind patterns
have on the spread of radioactive iodine on the day of the
attack? For example, if a nuclear plant on the east coast
were hit, how effective would the winds be in carrying it
out to sea? What would happen if a nuclear power plant on
the west coast were hit? Would the jet stream winds carry
radioactive iodine to the surrounding states?What effect will
weather patterns (such as rain or snow) have on the spread
of radioactive iodine?
Is a 10-mile emergency zone
big enough? How much is it affected by wind and weather patterns?
Should potassium iodide be
given to people outside the 10-mile emergency zone?
How will the government prepare
for a planned nuclear attack on several cities at once? How
will the consumer know which direction to evacuate?er safety
measures that will include shelter and evacuation plans and
how to protect the food supply.
Prepare yourself ahead time. Talk about the risks
and benefits of taking potassium iodide with your doctor and pharmacist.
Make sure you know that it is safe for you to take potassium iodide.
And, know which doses are safe for you and your family to take.
Talk to public health officials about how to take shelter and
evacuate during a nuclear emergency.
Remember, potassium iodide can help you stay
afloat, but other important safety measures will get you onto
© 2001 Consumer Health Information Corporation. All rights reserved.