Separating the Fact From Fear: Are Iodine Tablets Necessary?

By Emily Murray

Last week I explored the potential impact of the nuclear crisis in Japan on those in the United States. While the overall theme was that we have no real immediate need to worry, the frenzy concerning iodine tablets is still leading to shortages in California and other parts of the U.S. When any type of panic is this widespread, it’s often worth examining the facts a bit closer before making the choice that you feel most comfortable with.

What are the harmful effects people in the U.S. are fearing?
When a nuclear disaster occurs, harmful radioactive elements can enter our bodies through inhalation and also through ingesting particles in food or water. Radiation is known to have many unfavorable side effects including infertility and cancer when the exposure takes place in harmful amounts. Now that those in the immediate area surrounding the plant in Japan are at risk, many U.S. citizens have felt that they could be next, especially those along the California coast.

Why is there such a focus on iodine?
In normal amounts, iodine is necessary for overall health but when nuclear disasters occur, a byproduct of nuclear fission is also iodine and this is a potentially harmful radioactive kind that is detrimental to our health. When it is taken into the body, the thyroid is often at risk since it may soak in the radioactive iodine instead of the normal dietary iodine. Often thyroid cancer is a side effect of this as was made noticeable by the nuclear tragedy of Chernobyl.

Who is at risk?
Right now, officials continue to say that only those in Japan within 50 miles of the plant are at immediate risk. We know that adults 40 and under as well as pregnant women and small children are at the highest risk and if they come in contact with radioactive material. It can be mere days or even years before the effects are recognizable but screenings are the most effective way to determine contamination. People generally opt to start supplementing with iodine tablets so that the body accepts this healthy iodine and then has no need to absorb the radioactive kind (sort of like trying to add more water to an already saturated sponge). This is why iodine supplementation is typically most effective before exposure to unsafe levels or radiation occurs.

Pros and cons of iodine pills
Recently there was a Q & A session featured in the San Diego Union-Tribune where this topic was discussed with Dr. Richard Clark, director in the Division of Medical Toxicology for the UC San Diego Health System. The question relevant to the pros and cons of the iodine tablets appeared as follows…

Q: What is standard treatment? Are there side effects? Who shouldn’t tale the pills?
A: “The standard treatment is different depending on the age of the person, but for adults over 18 or so it is 130 mg of KI a day until the contamination is gone. The side effects include potentially life-threatening allergic reactions and possible damage to the thyroid glad in some individuals  from the supplements themselves. Anyone with allergies to iodine, seafood (many of which contain iodine, particularly shellfish) or iodine-containing medications should not take iodine supplements. Anyone with a known or suspected thyroid condition should check with a health care provider before taking iodine supplements.”

As you can see, fear has already begun fueling the desire for iodine tablets as a preventative measure. As stated in the same newspaper article, ” There is no need to buy or take iodine supplements at this time, and supplies should be released by government agencies to protect at-risk individuals if the need occurs.”

While there is reason for us to be frightened, it is not likely that we in the United States will be effected anytime soon. Perhaps our fear and anxiety should be used to fuel efforts to help those in Japan who are at immediate risk. It’s important to understand that any type of supplement (iodine included) should be discussed with your doctor before you begin taking it. If the need were to arise for Americans to prepare for unsafe levels of radiation, then we would have plenty of time to take supplements before we would actually we exposed to the radiation.

Are you currently taking iodine pills or thinking of stocking up? I would love to hear your opinions, thoughts and concerns – comment here and I would love to discuss this topic further!