Avoiding Radiation Poisoning: What Are Potassium Iodide Pills, and Should I Take Them?

>Over at Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker has a useful primer on potassium iodide, the compound that is used as a medication to prevent people from absorbing radioactive iodine following radiological or nuclear events. She hits all the major points. What is potassium iodide? How does it work? Should people on the West Coast be taking it?

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.

Read the full story at Boing Boing.

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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