What does iodine do to protect you from fallout?
What kind of iodine products are there?
How much should I take?
With nuclear reactors exploding in Japan as of March 12, 2011 and the radioactive fallout said to be reaching North America on the jet-stream winds that cross the ocean, many people are seeking information on iodine supplementation as a protective measure. Information on potassium iodide (KI) is being sent around the Internet, as the CDC recommends it as an emergency measure. (Those guidelines can be found here and here.)
To Fear or Not to Fear?
The plume was predicted to be reach the West Coast on Saturday, March 19th. Seaweed snacks, noodles and extract sold like crazy, though you couldn't anyone interested a month ago. KI fell into short supply, and iodine vendors who still had stock jacked up their prices. What many people didn't realize was that although iodine-131 (an isotope released from nuclear reactors that are compromised) is radioactive, it has a short half-life and the levels expected to reach North America were not dangerous. But contradicting reports flew across the Internet.
Radiation traces in US (blue areas)
March 28, 2011 Source: EPA
Here's an update from the EPA and another report from the Public Health Department in Mono County, CA, authored by Richard Johnson, MD, MPH and Linda Salcido, both public health officials. The predictions, it says, are based on computer models, a What If? situation. The mad fever that has gripped us all is just a psychological storm. "We do know that some amounts of radiation have been released, as some containment vessels have been compromised. We do know that radioactive iodine has been released several hundred yards into the air and has settled back to the ground up to 20 yards away from the plants, where it will be absorbed into the soil, aided by the rain and snow. It has a half-life of 8 days, which means that 50% of it is no longer active after 8 days, and so on. Previous experience from the Nevada Test Site over many years and from the Chernobyl event show that only 10% of the radioactive iodine reaches the ground -- the rest decays quickly to xenon 131 which is stable and non-radioactive. ... In summary, Japan is experiencing a huge but localized industrial and environmental disaster, with a human disaster unfolding before our eyes.
"There is no reason to buy KI pills. Besides, I have not found any in the Eastern Sierra. I do not have any, Public Health does not have any, and the pharmacies and health food stores are out or never had any. You can try eBay -- if you have $2500 in spare change lying around! KI has been distributed for many years to those living within 10 miles of the 104 nuclear power plants, including San Onofre and Diablo Canyon. But even if there was a catastrophic event at one of those locations, we would not be candidates for taking KI."
So there you have it, two POVs (points of view), plus another EPA update here (see map above) -- the media's hysteria making and a public health department's reassurances. But just in case you want to know a lot more, read on ...
Iodide vs. Iodine
Iodine by itself,
Nascent iodine (see box, above right) is a bioavailable elemental form of iodine and a dietary supplement that is taken in the form of liquid drops. Note that iodide is different from iodine in that iodide is a compound (bonded) substance that must be broken down by the body into iodine by a process of oxidation. The thyroid performs this job with the help of hydrogen peroxide and thyroperoxidase. The idea behind using potassium iodide (KI) in the event of a nuclear disaster is that if the thyroid has enough "good" (non-radioactive) iodine it will not take up the radioactive iodine released by such an event.
From the CDC's website: "Following a radiological or nuclear event, radioactive iodine may be released into the air and then be breathed into the lungs. Radioactive iodine may also contaminate the local food supply and get into the body through food or through drink. ... In the case of internal contamination with radioactive iodine, the thyroid gland quickly absorbs this chemical. Radioactive iodine absorbed by the thyroid can then injure the gland. Because non-radioactive KI acts to block radioactive iodine from being taken into the thyroid gland, it can help protect this gland from injury."
The point being made is that potassium iodide can help the thyroid, but it does not protect the body's other glands and tissues from radiation damage. It is not a panacea or cure-all. Because the thyroid is the body's chief hormonal/metabolic regulator, protecting it is a good idea. Iodide is converted by the thyroid into iodine and used to make thyroid hormone, which is needed by every cell in the body (see posts above).
Iodine and the rest of the body
(regulated cell death)
The body's reproductive glands (breasts, ovaries, prostate) also store and need iodine. These glands will compete with the thyroid for available iodine, so it's important to supply the body with enough. An additional function of iodine: One of its beneficial regulatory tasks in the body is inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death), particularly in the iodine-dependent tissues and glands. We know that cancer cells do not reproduce like normal cells (they continue to rapidly divide), and high radiation exposure is known to cause cancer. By promoting apoptosis, iodine helps the body to keep its cells in check.
Sources of Iodine
Ocean water contains lots of iodine
and ocean air contains iodine vapor
In the wake of the Japanese disaster, other forms of iodine are being promoted as well. KI supplies are running out (read story here), and health-food stores are selling iodine-containing products like never before. How else can you get iodine? Commercially available seaweed extract and the Lugol's solution are two popular supplements. Seaweed itself (kelp), sold dried and fresh in health-food and Asian food stores, fish from the ocean, eggs and meat are natural iodine sources, along with vegetables grown in high-mineral and/or coastal soil. The ocean contains lots of iodine (which is absorbed by the skin), as does ocean air. (Ocean swimmers, surfers and beach-goers don't realize that one reason they love to spend time at the beach is because they are absorbing lots of health-giving iodine. Read our entire Iodine page to understand more.)
How much Iodine?
As most Americans are low on iodine to begin with, supplementing with iodine as part of nutrition is probably wise. But go slowly! Iodine is halogen and thus very reactive; the body uses it in tiny amounts. Additionally, iodine in your system displaces its halogen cousins (bromine, chlorine and fluoride), which may cause a strong detox reaction if not taken incrementally. The radiation scare has people buying iodine without any notion of what exactly it does and how much to take. (Click on the Read More link for information from two experienced sources.)
Note: If you decide to try iodine supplementation, be sure to stick with the recommended guidelines for the compound (iodide) and elemental (nascent) forms, which are quite different. Remember that nascent iodine is immediately available to the body; iodide is not. Iodine is a trace element, meaning the body needs very small amounts. The nascent form is not the same as the compound (KI) form. See manufacturer's recommendation for nascent-iodine dosage. Order nascent iodine here.