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Potassium Iodide and Protection Against Nuclear Attack

by Paul-Martin Foss

As the possibility of nuclear attack once again becomes a reality for many Americans, many people are looking to protect themselves from the inevitable effects of radioactive fallout. Preventive remedies and techniques that haven’t been used or practiced since the Cold War are coming back into vogue. With the development of the Internet, it is easier than ever to discover methods to protect yourself against the effects of nuclear weapon usage.

One of the major products of fission reactions is radioactive iodine or I-131. Up to 3% of the products of a fission reaction by weight is I-131. Since iodine is readily absorbed by the thyroid gland, those who are exposed to I-131 or who ingest large amounts of I-131 through their food may find themselves the victims of radioactive iodine poisoning. While I-131 has a half life of eight days and thus loses its radioactivity quickly, as it breaks down it releases radiation within the body. Those exposed to I-131 face the prospect of severe thyroid problems, including thyroid cancer.

The primary means of protecting yourself from I-131 poisoning is to consume potassium iodide (KI). Potassium iodide is a salt of stable, non-radioactive iodine that can help block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid gland. After consumption of potassium iodide, the stable iodine in KI will be taken up by the thyroid. Once the thyroid is “full” of iodine it cannot absorb any more iodine for at least 24 hours. Any I-131 that enters the body will therefore not be absorbed by the thyroid.

It is important to remember that KI must be consumed before exposure to I-131. Once I-131 exposure has occurred, the thyroid will fill up on I-131 and the iodine from KI will not be taken up by the body. One of the primary forms of KI is potassium iodide tablets, which are widely available, albeit with a shelf life of about seven years, thus requiring rotation on a regular basis.

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