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Response To An Interesting Reader Post About Potassium Iodide

May 4th, 2008 · 2 Comments

I received a very helpful post about my response to a WNYC listener asking about whether to store potassium iodide (KI) which can protect the human thyroid from radiation in the event of a terror attack or nuclear accident. In my initial post, I had written:

Most experts I’ve spoken to do not think individuals should store KI less because of the possible threat and more because it will likely be misapplied without proper guidance. But it would be worth asking your doctor for his advice. It is likely that in the event of an attack KI would be distributed by the government. These are questions we need to be asking our elected officials and public health authorities so they provide us with the answers in advance rather than during an emergency.
In his subsequent post, Alan Morris, an executive at Anbex, a leading manfacturer and distributor of potassium iodide, wrote:

You should be careful about what you read from the government about potassium iodide (KI). It should not be too great a surprise to learn that the current administration has politicized this issue, and once again has put politics above science.

In 2004, the US National Academy of Sciences issued a thorough and comprehensive report on KI that strongly endorsed its wide availability. But the Bush administration, earlier this year, decided to ignore the conclusions of this research group, and instead announced that a policy group (the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) had concluded that KI offered “negligible additional value” and consequently efforts to expand its availability would not be pursued. Thus, although millions of people could need KI in a radiation emergency, almost no one would be able to get it.

Unfortunately, your optimistic assumption that “in the event of an attack KI would be distributed by the government” is incorrect since there is almost no KI to distribute. I know this, because the company I work for is the only US FDA approved manufacturer of KI tablets for radiation protection, and is the government’s sole supplier of the product.

The KI story is a classic one, where the science is unquestioned, but the government’s response is political. In order to protect the perceived best interests of the nuclear industry, current radiological emergency response plans pay little attention to KI, but instead stress the immediate evacuation of millions.

It’s like they don’t remember Katrina.

In my post, I may have sounded too optimistic and may have unintentionally been misleading about the potential availability of KI. My bigger point was that there was a need for far more guidance on this and almost all other medicine-related issues when it comes to civilian emergency preparation and response. I am concerned, and have written extensively, about the lack of discussion and advice from the government to the public about what medicines we should be storing, like KI, and others that might need to be distributed in the event of an emergency (including those for bioterror and pandemic events). Also, I didn’t want people in the listening audience to suddenly get panicked and go out to try to find KI.

But Alan is right to point out the supply constraints. And, as he mentioned in the post, it is not clear why the Administration decided earlier this year not to go ahead with a plan to distribute KI to citizens near nuclear reactors as this USA TODAY article on his company’s site points out. The bottom line for me is that we need a full public discussion on KI and other medicines that might be necessary in an emergency.

Thank you, Alan, for your input. This is exactly what I was hoping would happen with this blog — soliciting outside expertise and then using it to help me and in turn other citizens understand these issues better. I will make sure to bring up the KI issue when I speak to policymakers in the future, and I will report my findings on the blog.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Harry R. Burger // May 4, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Congrats bro – getting noticed by business executives here. I’ve put it up the chain of command for my CERT group. NYS DOH says they have REQUESTED the pills for certain counties, but says nothing about receiving them. It’s a shame that we are left to our own devices on this. Besides, it works best if you take it before the fallout hits you on the head – best chance of that is to have your own supply at hand, rather than waiting for the government to hand it out, then fighting the mob of people trying to get it.

  • 2 Potassium Iodide // Dec 5, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that households within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant keep potassium iodide (KI) on hand to protect the thyroid in the event of an accidental or intentional release of radioactive iodines (”radioiodines”) into the environment. Schools and child care facilities within the same radius also should have immediate access to KI. It may be prudent to consider stockpiling KI within a larger radius because of more distant windborne fallout.

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