Potassium Iodide – A Protective Measure Not a Magic Pill

Patricia Milligan
Senior Level Advisor

refresh leafOne of the protective measures that communities around nuclear power plants might use in the case of a radiological emergency is potassium iodide. But potassium iodide, often just called by its chemical symbol, KI, can be confusing for the public — exactly what does it do and when should it be taken?

So here are some facts about KI:

  • It is not an “anti radiation” pill. Potassium iodide is a salt, similar to table salt. It is routinely added to table salt to make it “iodized.” Potassium iodide, if taken within the appropriate time and at the appropriate dosage prevents the thyroid gland from taking in radioactive iodide. This can help to reduce the risk from thyroid disease, including cancer as a result of a severe reactor accident. KI doesn’t protect the thyroid gland from any other radioactive element nor does it protect the thyroid or the whole body from external exposure to radiation. Its use is very limited.
  • KI comes as a tablet, either in 65 mg or 130 mg strengths, and dose is administered according to age and/or weight. It is very important that FDA dosing guidelines be followed when taking or administering KI. Too much stable iodide in the form of KI can be harmful to small children. A tablet can be easily divided, crushed and mixed with liquid to make it easier to swallow for infants, small children and those who have difficulty swallowing.
  • It is important that KI not be taken unless directed by appropriate state or local authorities during the emergency and then, it should be taken in accordance with those directions.
  • KI is NOT the same thing as table salt, and table salt should never be ingested as a substitute.
  • The NRC provides KI – free of charge — to states that have requested it for their population within the 10-mile emergency planning zone of a nuclear power plant. Some states have distributed KI to residents of a plant’s emergency planning zone. In other states, KI is stockpiled and would be distributed if and when it is necessary.
  • In the event of a serious nuclear incident, KI could be used in addition to evacuation or sheltering in place in accordance with directions from responsible state/local officials. For more information, see Consideration of Potassium Iodide in Emergency Planning.

The FDA’s Frequently Asked Questions on KI is a very good resource if you want more information.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous blog posts. This one originally ran in June 2012.

Going Shopping To Replace Potassium Iodide for Participating States

Patricia Milligan
Senior Level Advisor for Emergency Preparedness
 

The Department of Health and Human Services, acting on behalf of the NRC, last month issued a procurement order for 14 million tablets of potassium iodide to replenish out-of-date supplies. This drug, also known by its chemical symbol KI, is used to protect the thyroid against radioactive iodine should a nuclear power plant accident occur, and is part of NRC’s program to help states and localities with their emergency response plans.

The NRC first offered KI tablets to states with residents living within the 10-mile emergency protection zone of a nuclear power plant in 2001. The agency recommends that states consider including KI in their emergency preparedness plans and provides it to those states that ask for it. Currently, 25 states have requested and received the pills.

The NRC’s policy is to offer KI to states once every six years to replace pills that may have passed their shelf life. The recent order is the third wave of replenishing KI. While this matter has been subject of some social media attention as perhaps indicative of some imminent threat, supplying KI is nothing new. Including KI in emergency plans is a decades old precaution. However, this is the first time the NRC has used the HHS medical procurement service to order KI. The NRC decided to go through HHS this time in order to leverage federal buying power and reduce costs.

Here are some other facts about KI:

• KI protects the thyroid from iodine-131, a radioisotope that would likely be released into the air during a nuclear power plant accident. It does not protect against all forms of radiation and is to be taken in addition to other protective measures, such as sheltering.

• Residents living near nuclear plants should take KI only when directed by local authorities during an incident – it is not a daily supplement to build up immunity, as some have advertised on the Internet. In fact, daily use can be harmful.

If you live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant and want to inquire about obtaining KI and/or disposing of expired KI, contact your state health authorities.