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:
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.