Potassium Iodide To The Rescue

Since the end of the Cold War, the focus of the nuclear threat has changed from hostile countries to terrorist cells. What should we do if terrorists set off a dirty bomb in a populated area, or sabotage a nuclear power plant? Some say the first thing we should do is grab a bottle of potassium iodide (KI). But that depends. First, about the KI.

Iodine is an essential part of a healthy diet. It is used by the thyroid gland to create hormones that regulate body functions. Without it, we leave ourselves open to a host of physical ailments. The thyroid takes in iodine on an as-needed basis. Radioactive isotopes of iodine are produced during certain nuclear reactions. And therein lies the problem; our bodies cannot tell the difference between healthy iodine and the deadly radioactive iodine. If our thyroid absorbs radioactive iodine, we are at a much higher risk of developing thyroid cancer and other diseases. To prevent this from happening, either immediately before exposure to radioactive iodine, or shortly thereafter, we can saturate our thyroid gland with KI. Since the thyroid can only hold so much, there will be no room for any radioactive iodine.

Now the 'that depends' part. Radioactive iodine unfortunately is only one type of radiation that may be produced in a nuclear accident or terrorist attack. Gulping down KI will have absolutely no effect on other types of radiation that pass through and destroy healthy cells. But, if it is radioactive iodine, potassium iodide may just save your life.

About the Author

Carol Thomas, MD

Carol ThomasDr. Carol Thomas is an Endocrinologist with a private practice in Palo Alto, California. Carol received her undergraduate degree at Stanford University and completed her medical residency at U.C.L.A. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at U.C.S.F. and has published numerous articles in her field of medicine. Dr. Thomas writes on endocrinology as well as general medical topics.