Japan nuclear crisis: "Should I take potassium iodide pills to protect against radiation exposure?"


In the past couple of days, as many of us around the world began thinking seriously about the fallout from the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan, I've gotten lots of questions about potassium iodide pills—"Why do people take them?", "How do they work?", "Should my family take them?"

I've spoken with several health physicists—researchers at American universities and at the Mayo Clinic—and I think that I can now answer these questions well enough to post something to BoingBoing. This is a scary, nerve-wracking topic for a lot of people, so I'm not going to bury the information down in a narrative. We'll just get right to the point. In fact, I think that I can clear up most of the confusion by answering four questions.

What are potassium iodide pills?

Basically, potassium iodide is just a specific kind of salt. Nothing fancy. The same stuff is often put into table salt as a way to get iodine into the diets of people who don't eat much naturally iodine-containing food. Iodine, itself, is an element that's important to the human body. Without it, the thyroid gland can't make certain hormones. If you don't eat enough iodine, especially as a kid, you'll end up with goiters, fatigue, depression—and worse. Thanks to iodized salt (and diverse diets), those of us who live in industrialized nations don't have to think about whether we're getting enough iodine. And, thus, we don't think too much about potassium iodide. Until there's a risk of radioactive fallout.

How do potassium iodide pills protect against radiation?

Elements come in two forms: Stable and radioactive, the latter of which are prone to breaking apart, shooting out particles that can damage cells and DNA. There's good ol' stable iodine—the stuff that keeps our bodies functioning properly. And there's radioactive iodine—which is dangerous.

Radioactive iodine is dangerous precisely because, within the human body, it does the same thing that stable iodine does. It goes straight to the thyroid gland.

Once there, radioactive iodine can damage cells and DNA and increases the risk of thyroid cancer. But, there's a catch. The thyroid can only hold so much iodine at a time. Once the shelves are full, any new iodine that shows up is simply excreted back out of the body until the supply needs to be restocked again.

That's where potassium iodide pills come in. If radioactive iodine is present, you can prevent it from getting into your thyroid gland by having the gland already full of stable, safe iodine—the kind found in potassium iodide pills. Because radioactive iodine has a short half-life—by this Saturday, March 19, half of all the radioactive iodine released by the reactors at Fukushima will be gone—affected people don't have to take potassium iodide pills forever. Just long enough for the radioactive iodine to break apart and vanish.

Key takeaway from this part: Potassium iodide pills will only protect against the effects of radioactive iodine in the thyroid. There's other radioisotopes being released by the Fukushima reactors, and potassium iodide can't do anything about them.

What are the risks of taking potassium iodide pills?

There are risks. The big one: You might be allergic to potassium iodide pills. This is particularly likely if you are already allergic to shellfish. The allergic reactions could be life threatening, and there's not really a good way to know whether you'll be allergic to the pills until you try one.

But there's another risk, too. There's not an unlimited supply of potassium iodide pills. If people living in places unaffected by radioactive iodine buy up lots of potassium iodide pills, it means there are fewer of those pills available for the people who really need them. That's why the Union of Concerned Scientists recently put out a press release asking Americans to refrain from buying—or, worse, stockpiling—supplies of potassium iodide pills. People in Japan need them. Which brings us to the final question:

Will radioactive fallout from Fukushima reach the West Coast of the United States?

The answer depends on what you mean. If you mean, "Will radioactive fallout from Japan reach the West Coast in quantities that could increase the risk of cancer for me and my family?" Then the answer is, "No."

The risks of exposure to radiation are dependent on the dose. As it travels across the Pacific Ocean, the concentrated radioactive fallout that leaves Fukushima will become diluted—some will fall out into the ocean, some will drift away on the breeze, some of the isotopes—including radioactive iodine—will even break apart, becoming something else, something not dangerous.

By the time any of the radioactive isotopes reach American shores, the fallout will be so dilute that radiation will have dropped well below the levels that cause detectable increases in the risk of cancer. There will not be a reason for Americans to worry about their health. This is according to Kelly Classic, radiation physicist at the Mayo Clinic; Kimberlee Kearfott, health physicist at the University of Michigan; Ralf Sudowe, health physicist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas; Kathryn A. Higley, health physicist at Oregon State University; Jason T. Harris, health physicist at Idaho State University and, if you read the link above, The Union of Concerned Scientists.

It will be possible to detect radiation from Fukushima in the United States. But that's because the tools we have for detecting radiation are incredibly sensitive. We can spot radiation at levels far lower than those that can actually increase our risk of cancer. Frankly, that's a good thing. It means we can see problems before they build into something serious. It means we can accurately measure dangerous levels of radiation without having to get scientists too close to the radiation source. And, it will mean that we will be able to see very low levels of radiation from Fukushima in the United States, even though the risk from that radiation will be something we can shrug off.

I know this doesn't answer all of your questions, but I hope it helps. I'll be back tomorrow with more information on issues like what happens to radioisotopes that get inside your body, how Fukushima will affect the food chain, why it's mostly OK for radioisotopes to fall into the Pacific Ocean.

EDIT: Charles Q. Choi, a science journalist who is currently reporting from Chernobyl, spotted a quick fact that I forgot to mention. Based on the available evidence, thyroid cancer caused by exposure to radioactive iodine seems to be a problem primarily for children, rather than adults.

Image: Some rights reserved by ark


  1. Thank you! I appreciate the primer — I think that I just learned a lot more in 90 seconds than say… a full year of high school chemistry. But, what about Hawaii? Did anyone discuss Hawaii’s proximity to Japan versus California’s distance?

    1. It will be heading up to the Aleutian islands, Alaska and the US West coasts. It will bypass Hawaii altogether unless wind currents change. You can research it on yahoo.

  2. Nice work, Maggie – thx for keeping us up-to-date with all of this.

    One nit-pick, tho: it’s “nerve-RACKing”, not ‘Wracking”. It comes from the days when they used to use the Rack to torture people.

    Wrack is a similar to a wreck, being the smashed remnants of a vessel cast up on a beach.

  3. The public service of BoingBoing is beyond reward. Thank you, Maggie, Xeni for everything you’re doing here. You provide direct comfort and reassurance; knowledge is confidence, confidence is strength.

  4. Maggie – Thank you so much for this article! I live in Southern California, and have been trying to get a straight answer as to what the risks are to those of us living here. There is so much misinformation out there right now, and it was refreshing and reassuring to find such a well-sourced article that exactly answered my questions.

  5. That and the half life for radioactive iodine is roughly 8 days. Which means even if it did manage to reach the west coast it’s going to be much lower in concentration than when it was released…

  6. Thanks, Maggie! Great read. I’m going to keep my bottle of potassium iodode (somewhere I’ve got directions on dilution in case of disaster) on the shelf until needed. (urbanhick, I think “nervewracking” is an acceptable variation. Ain’t words fun? ;)

  7. In American dictionaries, both rack and wreck are listed, as does the OED. In British English, I have never seen “nerve-racking”, it looks wrong and I was suprised to see that rack is indeed an accepted variant. So careful with that nit-picking.

  8. I’ve got family in the midwest who are close to begging me to come home, as I live in northern california. They’re plugged into mainstream and are close to panicking about it all.

    This gives me the information I need to tell them to calm down. Thank you!

    (I also concur that nervewracking is an acceptable variation, though I suppose it would be nervewrecking instead…)

  9. You missed the most important question: Is there a pill that contains both KI and hydrocodone?

  10. To each their own, I suppose.

    My American mother and English father both insisted it was nerve-racking – must be an inherited prejudice!

    A little research indicates that the difference would seem to be in degree, not kind: When one’s nerves are Racked, it would indicate that they are being tortured, strained, etc. When they are Wracked, it would mean they are being destroyed, wrecked.

    Nothing like a little wordplay fun to take one’s mind off the horrible news, huh? Thanks!

  11. So, here’s a question (not really a concern, but I’m curious). A good friend of mine is undergoing radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Would someone who is already receiving radiation treatments (like my friend, or someone who just received an intense dose of radiation for something like thyroid cancer) need to be any more worried than the rest of us?

    1. Anon #14:

      Your friend’s chances of getting cancer in the future as a result of her radiation treatments should be less of a concern, as she already has cancer – the die has already fallen, the possibility has already been realized.

      PS: Sorry to hear about your friend, hope they fully recover.

      1. In response to anon 14:
        They routinely use CT scans to screen patients in remission to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned. The CT from these scans likely would dwarf any we’d be exposed to from Japan, and the studies generally support that there is not exceptional risk from the additional radiation given these patients. So, as anon 19 said, shouldn’t be any significant additional risk. I am not an oncologist, but that’s my understandning.

    2. Re: risk to those who have had previous radiation treatment for thyroid cancer.

      Radiation treatment for thyroid cancer typically follows thyroidectomy and effectively destroys any residual thyroid tissue. Moreover, the therapy itself consists of a megadose of radioactive iodine, enough to kill any thyroid tissue that takes up the iodine. Anyone who has been through this therapy therefore no longer needs to fear radioactive iodine fallout, as they have no thyroid tissue to take it up, and there’s no point in giving KI to people in such circumstances. Save their dose for someone with a thyroid gland.

  12. Maggie, your explanations are leading me to read up on subjects I haven’t looked into in decades. Thanks.

    Cancer as a result of radiation seems kind of a crap-shoot to me. But it still happens, though. Is it because of the radioactive isotopes remaining in the body or the relentless bombardment of particles? If the DNA strands have to get struck with a particle in order for the bases to get damaged and then get recombined wrong,c ausing mutation, then the particles released from the isotopes have to be hammering away pretty intensely.

    Either nerver-racking or nerve-wracking are acceptable, according to Merriam – Webster. They’re linguistic isotopes. Maybe that would make anagrams isomers?

  13. Ooops, I misread the part about which may be the earlier form, but the assertion is still highly debatable. ;-)

  14. Glad to see -someone- putting out a little bit of information in the midst of all they hysteria that every media outlet (including BB) has been feeding.

  15. Re: “some will drift away on the breeze”

    There is no “away”. One planet. And the ocean life is life, which is likely to be profoundly effected by radiation falling into the ocean.
    And nothing in this article about plutonium.

    Still, thanks.


    1. Fair enough. Agreed: There is no “away.” But like many Americans you seem to assume that radioactive materials all have centuries-long halflives. In fact some have very short lives, like those that might be released from these reactors. Or, for another typical example of radiation, the heat from your fireplace.

      So there really is an “away” in the sense that much of the might-happen radiation will in fact decay before long, and certainly before it reaches the eastern Pacific shoreline.

      1. “So there really is an “away” in the sense that much of the might-happen radiation will in fact decay before long, and certainly before it reaches the eastern Pacific shoreline.”

        i’m with Anon here – there is no away – we just have the one planet and ionizing radiation is bad no matter how short the half-life might be or how distant the release is.

        will a Japanese melt-down harm anyone on the east coast of the Pacific? likely not, but a radiation release can only be detrimental.

  16. Thanks for the well researched writing, Maggie! Keep an eye out for woo on this subject, as I have a nagging feeling that it’s just around the corner.

  17. People in the US worried about nuclear fallout need to remember that we have already irradiated our own soil a lot more than a Japanese reactor ever did, by testing (detonating) truly massive amounts of nuclear weapons in the middle of the southwestern United States.

    It might help put people at ease to remind them that we have detonated over a thousand nuclear weapons in Nevada alone, 100 of which were above ground, and that we’re all still doing fine afterward.

    1. “It might help put people at ease to remind them that we have detonated over a thousand nuclear weapons in Nevada alone, 100 of which were above ground, and that we’re all still doing fine afterward.”

      still doing fine? then why have 22,000 Americans been indemnified for illnesses resulting from atomic testing by the Justice Department’s Radiation Exposure Compensation Program?
      and an additional 10,000 uranium workers?
      over $1.5 billion has been paid out.


      and why is the Energy Department spending $65 million a year cleaning up the Nevada test site?


      1. I have a really bad habit of using simple, conclusive language on complex subjects with a lot of caveats that deserve better explanation.

        You’re totally right, that testing had a definite, measurable cost to many people.

        However it didn’t have an obvious effect on uninvolved people living in, say, Seattle or New Orleans… which was the point I so awkwardly failed to make.

        If setting off all those damn nukes didn’t have a really obvious effect on people that distance away, a couple damaged reactors won’t have an obvious effect on people who are half a world away.

  18. I had assumed that nerve-wracking referred to the neurological sequelae of wrackspurt infestation.

  19. An radioactive atom, when it radiates, is said to spit out or emit a proton or a neutron from its nucleus; iirc, these are also called alpha and beta particles.

    Are these particles actually discrete quanta with a specific and specifiable direction of travel from the atom emitting it; or, does it a wave of energy, which expands spherically in all directions from the atom?

    …or is it both at once?

    1. Alpha and beta (also gamma) particles are in fact discrete particles. The particle is emitted in a random direction from the decaying molecule. As such, a mass of a radioactive substance will be continuously emitting what could be described as a spherically-expanding radiation field.

      For reference:
      An alpha particle is composed of 2x protons and 2x neutrons. It is identical to the nucleus of a Helium atom (i.e., it’s a Helium without it’s electrons).
      A beta particle is a high-energy, high-speed electron or positron.
      A gamma ray is high-frequency electromagnetic radiation, which is composed of photons.

      1. So these elements literally shed mass as they radiate and eventually become inert over time?

        1. “So these elements literally shed mass as they radiate and eventually become inert over time?”

          yes to both
          a minuscule amount of mass is lost in the form of radiation

          the elements will become inert over time. the radioactive hydrogen being released in Japan becomes effectively inert in a few minutes. the uranium in the reactors will take a few billion years to decay into lead.

  20. Nice post, but I must vehemently disagree with the idea that a shellfish allergy and an iodine allergy are related. This is a myth. A shellfish allergy is related to muscle proteins, not iodine. I am allergic to shellfish, I give iodine containing contrast to patients all day, and I would not hesitate to take iodine.

    1. Yep, the shellfish/iodine thing is a myth. Iodine allergy is rare, and we’re not even talking about iodine here – potassium iodide is an ionic compound of iodine. You can’t ingest pure sodium or chlorine too easily, but sodium chloride (table salt) isn’t so bad.

  21. Thank you Maggie, for sharing with us this information.
    # 25 Ms. or Mr. Raddoc
    If we eat sea weeds that have been harvested before today, will that be a good idea?

  22. <== (radiologist and nuclear medicine doc) Excellent job. Unlike some of the other information I have seen on CNN and the like. Seems that they find anyone willing to call themselves an expert and put them on the air. For those who may need, or have had I131 treatment for graves disease or cancer, it should be pointed out that doses given for treatment are not carcinogenic because the dose to the thyroid is so high, it essentially burns it out. One other point is that iodine can be obtained in other forms, particularly multivitamins. I haven't done the research to see if this would be adequate to block, but I suspect it would . Also, there are sources of iodine such as seaweed, that might be adequate to block. Agree with raddoc that the shellfish allergy is an urban myth.

    1. A great source of iodine from seaweed, and rather ironic, is sushi. So protect your thyroid and show your solidarity with the Japanese people by eating a sushi roll.

  23. The word wrack … is related to Old English wraec “misery” and wrecan “to punish.”


    AirPillo: Buzzkill! How am I supposed to get caught up in all the hysteria when people like you and Maggie are setting the record straight? I just read an article in the newspaper over my morning cup o’ joe about panic buying of Iodine pills in the US. Here is the AP video on which it was based.

    Maggie: Thanks for the ‘fo. Any chance you could add some educated commentary about the dangers of exposure to plutonium and the mechanism by which it affects our health?

    1. Fascinating – thank you!

      I wonder if “wrecan” is the origin of the word “reckon” – as in the “to take into account or deal with” sense.

      Do you know which Old English dialect? Cumbrian? Mercian?

  24. The decay of radionuclides is complex. For example, nuclides that decay by positron emission (positrons are anti-electrons) emit the positron, but that immediately annihilates when it meets an electron. That is, any matter at all. The annihilation emits gamma rays in a very specific way. So one decay process involving a particle results in the emission of 2 waves. This is the basis of PET scans.

  25. While I agree with the gist of the article, and appreciate the reminder that Americans buying KI may cause some Japanese children to cancer, I’ll point out what a UCS expert recently said: it only takes one energetic-enough particle striking a cell to cause a cancerous mutation.

    There is no such thing as -no risk-. Yes we’re subject to cosmic rays, yes there’s natural background, yes we sometimes get too fearful about radiation. But that doesn’t mean we should get complacent about it, or accept assurances about “detectable increases in the risk”. YOU get to decide what risks YOU will accept, until such time as you leave that decision up to experts, like the people around Fukushima did. Their risks have increased a lot lately, but -now- all they can do is take KI and pray. We don’t -have- to wait until that’s our only option.

  26. This is super useful information! Thank you so much!

    However, to people that say the potassium iodine/ shellfish thing is a myth, I must counter. I’m dangerously allergic to both.

    It may still very well be a myth– but as I have no other serious allergies, I unfortunately help to reinforce it.

  27. I think it’s also important to point out that the vast majority of exposure (some 98%) to radioactive iodine from the Chernobyl explosion came from the consumption of tainted dairy products.

    Skip the dairy for a few weeks if you are worried about radiation and send your iodine tablets to Japan where they really need them.

  28. It seems to me, as is the case widely in the media, that you assume the situation is stable and will not worsen when you say the migration of radio-isotopes doesn’t pose a danger. It doesn’t, for now. But, in the spirit of preparation and pro-activity, how likely is it that the situation will not get worse? Also, the impact is cumulative… for how long will continued streams of radiation, which will accumulate, be safe? But again, more importantly, it seems likely, short of major as yet unforeseen intervention, that the problem will get worse and emit stronger doses of radiation. Can you possibly find someone who understands the technology at those plants specifically to address those issues? Amazing how silent the manufacturers seem to be on these questions. There’s a big difference between theory and practice. While the scientists obviously have much to offer, we need to hear from the engineers.

  29. IMHO, it makes some sense for people in the US who live close to nuclear reactors to keep KI handy in case of more local emergencies, but I’d wait to stock up at this point due to twin motives of altruism and desire to avoid price gouging. Wait a couple months, and the stuff will be on clearance.

    I define “close” and “nuclear reactors” rather more broadly than the US government, though. “Close” to me is “within a few hundred miles,” and “nuclear reactors” includes research reactors, sub/carrier bases, etc. and not just power plants.

  30. IMPORTANT ADDITIONAL RISK to be aware of –

    If you take too much iodine it will poison you. The lethal dose is around 2-3 grams.

    See (for example, but not limited to):

    The potassium iodide tablets used for radiation protection are about 100 milligrams, about 1/30 of the lethal level.

    Don’t buy a bottlefull and gobble them up.

    Don’t go chugging other iodine solutions or sources in unknown concentrations. A bottle of betadine is probably enough to be lethal, for example (see: http://www.betadine.com/pdf/Betadine%20Solution%202007.pdf – at about 1% concentration, there are about 2.4 grams of iodine in the bottle).

    If someone were to drop a nuclear bomb next city over, and you had no iodine tablets handy, a half a shot glass of betadine might not be the worst option. With this situation in Japan, please don’t try anything like that. It’s not necessary, appropriate, or safe.

    (I am not a doctor, but this needed to be said…)

  31. pshaffer – the amount of Iodine in a vitamin pill or seaweed is about 1/1000 of the amount in a single dose of potassium iodide. Some rough calculations indicate that approximately 11 POUNDS of dried kelp contain the equivalent dose to 1 Potassium Iodide pills.

  32. @ oldbrownsquirrel:

    last I researched it, no increased risk of other cancers with I-131 under about 150 mCi. (and this is a very grey line – very difficult to research.) Usual doses for Graves – 10-25 mCi, for cancers 50~ 100 mCi but have gone to 300 or so in some circumstances.

    Will update when I have time.

  33. I heard about the iodine-pill rush this morning on NPR.

    Honestly, would I be completely out of line to just point and laugh at everyone in the continental U.S. who has been panicking about this particular thing? I mean, using up all the pills so there’s a global shortage is criminally self-centered (and depressingly typical, sez I, for the U.S.), and it just struck me as more than a little hysterical that people were worrying about the effects of a “radioactive cloud” floating over from Japan. Here comes Hedorah!

    I appreciate this article and the fact that it soothes those fears so politely, without for a second implying that the fearful are completely frakking paranoid children for even worrying about it. God knows I wouldn’t have shown that kind of forebearance.

    Did they actually have the tiniest shred of sound basis for their fears? Or can I go back to laughing at them?

    1. Are a large percent of Americans completely barking mad?

      How can people live their lives like that?
      Stockpiling against non-existant threats because talky-mcTalking head tells them to…
      Huddling in their McMansions, cradling shotguns, afraid of every snapping twig and sudden breeze.

  34. Thank you Maggie! That’s the most cogent summary I’ve seen yet. I’m sending it to all my potentially misguided office mates.

  35. @oldbrownsquirrel –

    OK found some info in the Journal of Clinical thyriodology (free downloads).

    review articles from 2008 – overall conclusion is that I-131 therapy increases chances of second primary malignancies.

    But – as usual – the follow up research is behind the curve. Data from patients collected over 10-40 years, and the average dose was 163 mCi. These are patients treated as many as 30-40 years ago, before tailoring doses to the risk level of the patients. Most of our patients now are getting less than 100 mCi. One reviewed paper which had the lowest average dose (70mCi) had no increase in cancers, but it was a small number of patients

    so there is no hard data about what the lower doses would do – and we will have to wait 20 years to find out.

    Finally, these secondary cancers may, in a way, be irrelevent:

    “Lastly, it is important to know that an important study by Links et al. (2) which investigated life expectancy in patients with thyroid cancer found that patients who were free of disease had a normal residual life span after being cured, whereas median life expectancy was reduced to 60% in patients with residual disease.The authors concluded that treatment, including radioiodine, is safe and did not affect life expectancy.”


  36. Thanks for posting this. A female friend called us in a panic a couple of days ago, asking if we might have any potassium iodide tablets on hand that she could have. (We have a reputation for being preparedness geeks.) She wanted them for her 10-month-old twins. Here’s the best part: she lives in PHILADELPHIA. And this is a smart, smart woman in all other respects. Luckily we could honestly say that we don’t keep that particular item on hand. Radiation is a scary thing, but I don’t see fiery doom on the horizon quite yet.

  37. A few days after the Chernobyl explosion, all schoolchildren in Poland were given a small amount of Lugol’s iodine solution to drink (iodide tablets were not available in the required quantities).

    This was an unprecedented step by the Polish government who acted to protect the country’s citizens even though it meant disobeying their Soviet handlers. Another step was replacing regular dairy products with those based on powdered milk for the next few weeks. The Soviets, BTW, provided no information on the explosion. For two full days nobody knew that anything had happened. Then the radiation monitoring stations in eastern Poland detected radiation levels that were half a million times higher than usual. At first they thought a nuclear bomb exploded somewhere in the Soviet Union but soon the government learnt what happened. From the BBC.

  38. +1 on the “thank you”. Even though I prefer not to hear “I found some great medical advice on a popular Web site” very often, I am glad that you have made that phrase slightly less toxic.

  39. It might be a losing battle trying to tell segments of the US
    population to think rationally, to think scientifically.
    This is the same nation that has people who:
    believe vaccines are harmful;
    deny the climate change effects of CO2;
    think the Earth was created 10,000 years ago;
    think Obama was not born in Hawaii;
    believe 9-11 was an “inside job”;
    went to the “Restore Honor” rally.

    1. When our company hires, we ask a number of these questions. “What is the approximate age of the earth?”, “Who was responsible for the WTT attacks?”, and “How do you feel about homeopathy?” are great filters.

      Re potassium iodide tablets, my understanding (and I could well be wrong on this) is that no Japanese citizens, even those initially within the exclusion zones, have yet been instructed to take the pills. North Americans stocking up shows a total lack of understanding about the situation, a distrust of experts and media, or a combination of both. I predict that more Americans will be killed in car crashes going to purchase these pills than will be affected by Fukushima.

  40. Milk and fresh greens which have been exposed to the fallout would probably be larger sources of iodine than the air people are breathing. Acting to avoid these things if they come from an area with minor contamination would do more to help a person than taking potassium iodine pills. It would also be more useful to avoid even mildly radioactive rain and dust (by wearing your raincoat, for example, and putting it into a plastic bag near your door when you come inside).

    Its really difficult to say what levels will even be in the USA. There is very little good information about what they are even in Japan. They would very wildly with weather where the stuff comes down (it will all come down someplace, even if its decayed some when it does). It will vary wildly with weather over the Pacific. It will vary wildly with winds and weather fronts.

    It would be silly to take potassium iodine pills without knowing you could benefit from them, just as its crazy to take any medicine without knowing that. That means knowing that there has been a large radiation spike where you live. How would the people stocking up on these pills know that? I see many of them bidding up wildly inappropriate civil defense geiger counters on ebay, they wouldn’t register the difference between LA and Tokyo, if they still work at all.

  41. I would like to know about plutonium isotopes as there is mox fuel both used at he plant and in the spent fuel rods. Since the decay rate of plutionium is 24k years how will it disperse.

  42. I would like to add that eating sushi or even just the sushi seaweed wrapper you can buy in any store, some spicy or tangy if that’s your preference, is all the iodine you need to block uptake, and as this article points out, we are so far away, and the half-life of iodine 161 is only 8 days, really no reason to pay $899 a bottle, as some sites are advertising!

    However, there are three kinds of radiation, alpha, beta and gamma, geiger counters by in large only measure gamma, while tritium for example, is a clear ionizing gas that would give you lung cancer from alpha (short) waves. Clearly not as dangerous as gamma (plutonium in the reactor, that’s the MOX ‘white smoke’) but where there’s G, there’s A and B, and no particle mask is going to protect you against that.

    Shop early, stay in doors on ‘Gamma Days’ and hope there’s no explosion. Once the Pacific high sets in by late spring, the only place that needs to worry is Kamchaatka and the Kurils

    1. “tritium for example, is a clear ionizing gas that would give you lung cancer from alpha (short) waves.”

      How is a tritium nucleus (one proton, two neutrons) going to emit an alpha particle (two protons, two neutrons)?!

      (Answer: it isn’t. Tritium is a beta emitter. It does, upon beta decay, produce a helium nucleus as a decay product, but it’s He-3, not the He-4 of alpha particles.)

  43. According to an NPR interviewee, the short answer is “no”. Damned publicly funded media and their saggy Snoop Poopy Dogg reporting!

  44. From what I understand hysterical Americans have already bought up all the U.S. supply of pills, meaning there’s no supplemental supply to send to Japan if it’s needed. My fellow Americans, doing me proud……..

    1. Be fair, it’s not just Americans. Apparently the Chinese are so hysterical that most supermarkets there are out of iodized salt.

      1. People are the same all over the world.

        Ignorance leads sometimes to fear, sometimes to hatred, sometimes to error, and always to suffering. Don’t let ignorance take the lead.

  45. Thanks Maggie!

    But can I qualify a couple of your statements?

    You say that:

    radioactive iodine has a short half-life—by this Saturday, March 19, half of all the radioactive iodine released by the reactors at Fukushima will be gone

    Well, that’s true for the I-131 generated as a fission byproduct from before the earthquake. But if criticality events are happening in any of either the damaged reactors or spent fuel pools, then fresh I-131, Cs-137 and Sr-90 etc will be produced.

    You also say that:

    By the time any of the radioactive isotopes reach American shores, the fallout will be so dilute that radiation will have dropped well below the levels that cause detectable increases in the risk of cancer.

    Again, that’s certainly true for the pre-earthquake I-131 if a catastrophic explosion expels it into the jetstream but not, as I mentioned, if there are fresh fission byproducts being generated.

    Also, that is not the case for the cesium or strontium species, which both have half lives of around 30 years. Any radioactive decay of these species would be negligible by the time they reached the West Coast.

    Our best hope is that, if the worst happens at Fukushima and criticality events escalate in frequency and strength, is that the weather carries the fallout away over the Pacific and rain washes it down to the ocean.

    The fates of the West Coast and Japan are, literally and metaphorically, at the mercy of the elements …

    1. The fresh Iodine fission products have the same half-life as the earlier batches and pose the same level of threat.

      1. @Ugly Canuck: The pre-accident I-131 has been decaying since the core was shut down, and hence yes, has already decayed by one half-life. But any new I-131, if there is any, will not have.

        @OldBrownSquirrel: My point precisely. Some people believe that taking potassium iodide protects against any radioactivity. It would also be useful for that to be explicitly stated in Maggie’s article.

        It seems that the staining agent Prussian Blue can chelate cesium-137. I am looking forward to seeing people with Mentat-style stained lips walking around Hollywood once this knowledge becomes more common.

        1. In the year 10,000 there are only 2 mentat left.Doubt these Hollywood types could make it past chapter one of Dune.

    2. Also, that is not the case for the cesium or strontium species, which both have half lives of around 30 years. Any radioactive decay of these species would be negligible by the time they reached the West Coast.

      True, but irrelevant to the subject of this post:

      Japan nuclear crisis: “Should I take potassium iodide pills to protect against radiation exposure?”

      KI protects against absorption of radioactive iodine but does nothing to protect people against absorption of cesium or strontium (or uranium or plutonium or…). Cesium and strontium are entirely relevant to discussions of long-term radiation risk in the US, but they are (or at least should be) irrelevant to the KI hysteria.

  46. A couple of people have asked about plutonium reaching the West Coast. Since I have not seen an expert response yet, I’m going to give it a shot. Plutonium, like it’s cousin Uranium, is very heavy, roughly 20% more heavy than Lead and almost twice as heavy as Iodine. Nothing is ever absolute, but I would venture to say you would have to throw a lot of plutonium up into the atmosphere and have it travel very quickly in order for enough of it to remain in the plume to reach any great distance. For that to happen, you would pretty much need the entire reactor to blow up, dispersing the entire contents of the reactor and that plume would have to reach the jet stream. Naturally, the largest danger is nearest the reactor, but the West Coast is at least 7 time zones away. Hope this helps.

  47. OK. But I live 50 miles north of Indian Point, the riskiest nuclear plant in the nation. Should I have KI on hand?

    1. Keeping some handy doesn’t seem completely irrational in your case, but I’d wait for the prices to go back down.

  48. Although many people don’t know this, we need Iodine EVERY DAY. Our foods are very deficient in it.

    There is no need for someone to have a thyroidectomy and the radiation following. It is COMPLETELY unnecessary if you take iodine.

    There is a complete iodine protocol where people are cured from thyroid cancer, which most people who are “diagnosed” with it don’t really have it 90% of the time. So someone goes through all that and then didn’t need to lose their thyroid, a VERY important organ of the body.

    You can learn more at http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/iodine/?yguid=23991874.

    We have been lied to for a very long time about the demise of the food chain. Regular table salt is BAD for us. However, I take 1/2 tsp of Himalayan salt every day. And then I put salt on EVERYTHING I eat! Since starting the Iodine Protocol, I have been healthier. So are many on that Yahoo Group.

    We need to take our own health care seriously.

    Due to taking my iodine daily, keeps me fearless of the radiation that will come OR not come.

    Glad Maggie is getting at the fact that we don’t need to be concerned, yet. Why hasn’t the media picked up on this? Just kidding.

    1. I opted not to have 131 since I already had autoimmune disorders.My Doctor did not feel that after reading the pathology report that the 131 was necessary.I would not have done it anyway as I was well informed 6 years before I had to have my thyroid removed because I could not swallow due to a large goiter and I am small framed.

  49. I have no thyroid.I presently take Armour Thyroid replacement.What does a person with no thyroid do.I have been Euthyroid for 4 years after the removal of an extremely small pappilliary tumour that was 6 mm and contained,no central (blood supply to it and the tumour was encased in a fluid sac.
    My Doctor is away on vacation and not available to answer my wuestion.I have no residual Cancer cells after 4 years.

  50. Thank you,thank you, thank you. I truly appreciate you information. It was extremely helpful and I learned a lot more than what I’ve heard from the chitter chatter at work. So thank you for giving it straight forward and truthfully.

  51. What about the (probably large) amount of radiation that will end up in the Pacific Ocean? I would assume that it would remain for many years and make its way up the food chain. What about people who eat fish from the ocean? And won’t the radiation eventually wash up on beaches on the West Coast or around the world?

  52. Hmmm, I think it is reckless to say that you know what the outcome will be as far as cancer rates in the future. This is a unique situation that hasn’t happened before. We don’t know how our countries particular soils will react to the particular radiation now landing on the west coast. It could very well have a very negative effect. Contaminating the food supply with radiation WOULD be dangerous, or at the very least, have UNPREDICTABLE outcomes. Especially for anyone under the age of around 16 and every newborn for an unpredictable number of years.
    If you have an opinion, you should say you THINK it will not have negative consequences. Be honest. This has not happened before, we do not know what will happen. We shouldn’t panic…yet. However please stop blowing smoke up people asses.

  53. Maggie,

    Quick question that came up from a friend. Her thyroid has been radiated and she is on thryoid medication. How are people without a thyroid effected by radiation and wanting to take the iodine pills.

  54. Thanks for the great article Maggie! And kudos to Boingers for knowing good info when they see it. In the last few days I’ve been reading articles providing solid info and then the comments are riddled with idiots who are suspicious and insist on hysteria. Shameful!

  55. Hi Maggie,

    I purchased a couple of bottles of potassium iodide, pretty recently. Is there somewhere I can send them, so that they start making their way to someone who actually needs them?


  56. Thanks for this info, it’s really helpful!

    I have a related question. I have a friend who lives in Tokyo and she will be visiting me for ten days in two weeks. I wonder whether it’s safe to let her come into my house as I have two infants. Will she carry any radioactive elements with her, for example, on her clothes, in her hair, etc.? I am her friend but I just want to make sure that my kids are safe.


    Concerned Parent

  57. Thanks for this! Many customers at the little grocery and supplement store where I work have questions about this. I’ll let them know that their panic-driven avarice may be giving Japanese children cancer.

  58. Hi Maggie, great article here!

    I would like to ask if you have any insight on who exactly need to take potassium iodide pills, as opposed to what has been discussed in your article on the opinion that people in the States don’t.

    As of today, many elements have changed:
    (1)Japan has raised its nuclear crisis level to 7, which was initially a 4.
    (2)Japan itself so far claims its nuclear leak level to be one tenth that of Chernobyl, while there are other independent researches showing it may be close to Chernobyl level. For instance, in this article by the NewScientist manazine. (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20285-fukushima-radioactive-fallout-nears-chernobyl-levels.html)

    Considering the far-reaching impact of Chernobyl (the famous Discovery documentary showed the thyroid cancer rate in South France raised dramatically many years after the 1986 accident), I think it would be useful it there can be some more quantified/updated standard to apply.

    I myself live in Shanghai, China, much closer to Fukushima than U.S. citizens. Do you think people here need to take the pills? Have to ask here instead because we (at least overwhelming majority of those I know) don’t trust the government or the controlled-media, and discussions in local forums are censored/deleted/sometimes the gov simply pay people to post their version of stories…

    Anyway, appreciate it if you can answer my questions here.

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