Californians are understandably concerned about the health hazards the nuclear plume from Japan's Fukushima nuclear accident may pose if and when it arrives at the West Coast. This fear has led to a run on Potassium Iodide (KI), Kelp and other sources of iodine. Many feel unsafe and vulnerable because they could not get KI tablets. Some are willing to pay any price for these miraculous KI tablets, which obviously has created an opportunity for huge profits for many vendors on the internet.
In order to assess the situation accurately, we need to be free of fear. Only then can we use logic and take necessary actions. Here are some facts about radiation and cancer risk that we learned from the Chernobyl nuclear accident.
1. There was a long-term slowly increased risk of leukemia and cataracts in rescue workers at the nuclear accident site. Besides that, thyroid cancer was the only cancer attributable to radiation exposure from the nuclear accident.
2. Radioactive Iodine, mainly Iodine-131 isotope from the nuclear accident, caused more than 6000 cases of thyroid cancer over a period of 20 years in those individuals who were children or teenagers under the age of 18 at the time of the nuclear accident and lived in Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation (all within a 100 mile radius of the Chernobyl nuclear accident). In the rest of Europe and around the globe, there was no increase in the risk of childhood thyroid cancer, despite the nuclear plume flew all over the world.
3. The risk for thyroid cancer was directly proportional to the dose of radioactive Iodine, an estimated relative risk of 5.25 per Gy of radiation exposure.
4. Children and adolescents who were iodine deficient were three times more likely to suffer from thyroid cancer, compared to those who were iodine suffient.
Please note the Chernobyl accident was level 7 on the scale of severity and the Fukushima accident is currently determined to be level 5.
The chances of the radiation plume from Japan carrying large amounts of radioactive Iodine 5000 miles across the ocean to California are miniscule .
Actually, worrying can significantly increase your risk for many health problems including autoimmune thyroid disease. Is not it worthwhile to pay attention to risk factors which are under our control, such as obesity, cigarette smoking and vitamin D deficiency that not only increase your risk for cancer, but a host of other diseases as well?
If you are still very much concerned about the risk the radiation plume may pose, you may consider the following practical recommendations:
- Avoid milk, dairy products and fresh vegetables over the next one month. Why? Because when radioactive material falls on the ground, cows ingest it with grass and it then appears in their milk. Why one month? Because the half life of Iodine-131 is 8 days. In about one month, it should be down to a miniscule dose.
- Minimize your outdoor activities for about one month, because you could inhale radioactive Iodine as well as Cesium, the other harmful radioisotope from nuclear accidents.
- Make sure you are not iodine deficient (which you should not be, anyway). You can ask your doctor to run a urine test if you want to check your iodine level. Sea food, iodized salt and commercially baked bread are some good sources of iodine in everyday life.
- Potassium iodide (KI) when given to individuals exposed to radioactive iodine, can effectively reduce the risk of thyroid cancer development. This is how it works:
Iodine is the substrate thyroid gland uses to manufacture thyroid hormone. KI (and other iodine sources such as Lugol's iodine, kelp, contrast dyes, iodine containing cough syrups, etc) provides more than enough substrate to the thyroid gland, which then seals off its gate to any more iodine entry. Therefore, radioiodine can not get in.
In addition, KI dilutes the level of radioactive Iodine in the blood.
- Remember, KI is not without any risk either. It can cause gastrointestinal upset, bad taste, skin rash and severe allergic reaction. If taken on a chronic basis, it can cause goiter formation and underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) in people with Hashimoto's thyroiditis. It can interfere with anti-thyroid drugs such as methimazole (Tapazole) and propylthiouracil (PTU). Therefore, you should check with your physician if you are on any of these drugs or have an under thyroid condition.