In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima crisis, The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (Canadas “nuclear watchdog”) is for the first time recommending the distribution of potassium iodide pills to those living near nuclear reactors. As reported in The Globe and Mail on June 23, 2014, the group is proposing that tablets be given to those living within a radius of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles.)
The commission’s recommendation is a first step towards implementing safety standards which other countries have had for quite some time. In the United States, local emergency management officials and first responders typically keep a supply of potassium iodide on hand for residents within a 10 mile radius of a nuclear facility, however these pills are not given to these civilians prior to an actual emergency.
For over 30 years, Canadian citizens have been free to purchase the pills for themselves at pharmacies, however very few people in high risk areas have taken advantage of this. Theresa McClenaghan, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association was quoted as saying:
… there’s very low awareness by people that they should do so and that it matters to their health. Instead the messaging that people have had is that the plants are safe and there’s nothing to worry about.
One of the primary health risks from radioactive fallout is thyroid cancer – caused when the thyroid takes up radioactive iodine (Iodine 131) during exposure. Young adults and children are especially vulnerable. Potassium Iodide pills (also called“iodine pills” or KI) work as a “blocker” – filling the thyroid and thereby preventing radioactive iodine from getting in. While more or less harmless, potassium iodide should only be taken in the event of a nuclear emergency, since long term usage can adversely affect thyroid function.
In the United States, potassium iodide is considered a dietary supplement and can be purchased over the counter or online without a prescription.