Last week, my neighborhood health food store ran out of potassium iodide, a compound that can prevent thyroid cancer in people exposed to high doses of radiation. When I called the store, an employee told me demand has been high “ever since the incident in Japan.” I live in Brooklyn, New York, nearly 7,000 miles away from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. So what my neighbors plan to do with their potassium iodide is a total mystery. (FYI, if you try to use Google maps to determine the distance from Brooklyn to Fukushima, you will be directed to “kayak across the Pacific Ocean.” No joke.)
Although radioactive isotopes from Japan have been detected in roughly a dozen states the US (New York is not one of them), the levels are low. On Sunday, after rainwater in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania showed elevated levels of radioactive material, the CDC, FDA, and EPA issued a joint statement, noting that the levels detected “are 25 times below the level that would be of concern for use as a sole source of water over a short period of time even for infants, pregnant women or breastfeeding women, who are the most sensitive to radiation.” They added, “At this time, there continues to be no indication for anyone in the United States to take potassium iodine or switch to bottled water on the basis of the events in Japan.”
Taking potassium iodide can be risky. A joint statement from several professional organizations including The Endocrine Society and the Society of Nuclear Medicine warned that potassium iodide “can cause allergic reactions, skin rashes, salivary gland inflammation, hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism in a small percentage of people.” Leonard Wartofsky, a thyroid expert and chairman of the Department of Medicine at Washington Hospital Center in DC, said in an msnbc.com article, “It is inappropriate, foolhardy and dangerous to be taking iodine supplements at this time.” Hear that, Brooklyn? I didn’t think so.
So why the disconnect between what scientists are telling people to do and what people are actually doing? Could the message be getting scrambled? Are journalists not doing their jobs? I don’t think so. The articles I read clearly stated that radiation levels in the US are too low to warrant taking the pills. The public, for whatever reason, just isn’t listening.
Risk is a notoriously tricky thing to communicate, especially when the audience is children. In the video below, Japanese artist Kazuhiko Hachiya takes a stab at explaining the dangers of radiation using poop and farts. I’m not sure he succeeds, but the video has gone viral. Rumor has it this is playing on national TV in Japan. Watch and be amazed.
Image of the nurses courtesy of the Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. Naval Photographic Center.
Image of potassium iodide courtesy of nukepills.com