Boldizar: “Do you have any potassium iodide? Symbol KI?”
Pharmacist (looking bewildered): “No, but why is everyone asking me for it today? I’ve never had anyone ask for it before, and today you’re like the fiftieth person.”
Boldizar: “There are a couple of nuclear reactors in Japan that look like they might melt down.”
Pharmacist (looking even more bewildered): “Oh, and you need it for that?”
“There are three weapons against contamination — evacuation, confinement and iodine,” said Patrick Gourmelon, director of radioprotection at a French nuclear watchdog, the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN).
Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia: “Potassium iodide’s (KI) value as a radiation protective (thyroid blocking) agent was demonstrated at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear accident when Soviet authorities distributed it in a 30 km zone around the plant. The purpose was to protect residents from radioactive iodine, a highly carcinogenic material found in nuclear reactors which had been released by the damaged reactor. Only a limited amount of KI was available, but those who received it were protected. Later, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reported, “thousands of measurements of I-131 (radioactive iodine) activity…suggest that the observed levels were lower than would have been expected had this prophylactic measure not been taken. The use of KI…was credited with permissible iodine content in 97% of the evacuees tested.”
“Poland, 300 miles from Chernobyl, also distributed KI to protect its population. Approximately 18 million doses were distributed, with follow-up studies showing no known thyroid cancer among KI recipients. With the passage of time, people living in irradiated areas where KI was not available have developed thyroid cancer at epidemic levels, which is why the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported “The data clearly demonstrate the risks of thyroid radiation…KI can be used [to] provide safe and effective protection against thyroid cancer caused by irradiation.”
Children are particularly susceptible to radiation affecting the thyroid because the cells are growing/dividing. The Japanese government is already handing out potassium iodide tablets in the areas near the reactors, but since it is such a safe compound, there is no harm it taking it prophylactically.
In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website says, “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has revised a section of its emergency preparedness regulations. The revised rule requires that States with a population within the 10-mile emergency planning zone (EPZ) of commercial nuclear power plants consider including potassium iodide as a protective measure for the general public to supplement sheltering and evacuation in the unlikely event of a severe nuclear power plant accident.”
Similarly, FEMA’s guidelines state “FEMA believes that potassium iodide (KI) can be an effective supplement to sheltering and evacuation in the unlikely event of a release of radioactive iodine as a result of a commercial nuclear power plant accident.”
And although I am not generally a conspiracy theorist, and am pro nuclear power, just the way FEMA writes its guidelines (“in the unlikely event that…”) makes me think they would really like to avoid calling anything a full nuclear meltdown if there is any way they can contort definitions to stay away from that assertion. Governments do not like to be fully transparent about these sorts of things. So please excuse me while I go buy my KI.
Also, Iodine -131 (radioactive iodine) has a half life of 8.5 days, and seems to be particularly absorbed by milk. As anyone who’s read my fitness posts knows, I love milk, but if there is a full meltdown, say, a level 6 or 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), I may stop drinking it for a couple of months. Or, better yet, if you see them begin pouring cement and sand over the entire facility, then assume there’s a real meltdown.
As of Friday, 12 March 2011, the Japanese authorities have classified the event at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 as a level 4 “accident with local consequences” on INES. The scale is used to consistently communicate the safety significance of events associated with sources of radiation. The scale runs from 0 (deviation — no safety significance) to 7 (major accident). The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania was a level 5 (“accident with wider consequences”). The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was a level 7 (“major accident).
A bit of background about what exactly is dangerous in a nuclear core meltdown. This depends largely on half-life, how fast the radioactive elements decay into something stable and nonradioactive. Very roughly, a half-life of eight days means that after eight days, the element is half as radioactive. Note that it doesn’t mean that it’s gone, just half as dangerous. At sixteen days, it’s down to a quarter. At 24 days, it’s down to an eighth, at 32 days down to one-sixteenth, etc. Every eight days, it’s halved.
In a meltdown, the following are the main culprits that are released into the atmosphere:
1. Nitrogen-16 – not dangerous beyond the plant itself, simply because its half-life is only seven seconds.
2. Tritium – this is a very weak form of radiation that doesn’t travel far, cannot penetrate skin, and is already present in groundwater throughout the world. Its half life is 12 years, but because it’s relatively benign, it’s not a threat and is often vented into the environment even in normal plant operations.
3. Iodine-131 (radioactive iodine) – this is the main carcinogen that we have to worry about. It has a half-life of eight days, and is easily absorbed through irradiated food, especially milk products and animal products. It accumulates in the thyroid and causes thyroid cancer, with the greatest danger being to children whose thyroids are still growing and thus far more sensitive to radiation damage. This is the reason for my post on potassium iodide, which was estimated after Chernobyl at being 97% effective at counteracting iodine-131.
4. Cesium-137 – this is a long-term threat. With a half life of 30 years. It takes hundreds of years to fully eliminate, and is what still makes a land mass half the size of New Jersey uninhabitable around Chernobyl. Because it is chemically similar to potassium, the body absorbs it easily through foods, especially milk. Everyone in North America has already been exposed to small amounts of cesium-137 because of fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII that is still present in the soil.
Basically…nitrogen and tritium are safe, cesium-137 will get you no matter what you do and is impossible to defend against, but there is something everyone can do about iodine-131. We just need pharmacies that react a little faster to demand, or a government that will step in and order them to.
How it works:
According to a fact sheet issued by the Health Physics Society, a nonprofit organization of some 6,000 scientists whose mission is “excellence in the science and practice of radiation safety,” potassium iodide is a salt that, “if taken either before or very soon after a radioiodine intake and if taken in the proper dose, will block the uptake of radioiodine by the thyroid. KI can be in the form of a pill or a supersaturated solution. The recommended daily dosage for an adult is 130 milligrams. If the thyroid absorbs all the iodine that it needs from the nonradioactive KI, then the radioactive iodine will not be absorbed and will be eliminated from the body mostly by way of the urine. Reducing the amount of radioiodine absorbed in the thyroid will reduce the dose received by the thyroid thereby reducing the risks of thyroid cancer. Even though there have been minimal side effects (e.g., gastrointestinal effects or rashes) from the use of KI, this substance should only be taken on the advice of health-care providers. Again, KI will only help reduce the effects of radioiodine taken into the body and not from other radionuclides. The only possible sources of large radioiodine releases are from a nuclear weapons denotation and a catastrophic accident in an operating nuclear reactor.”
I would read the “only on the advice of health-care providers” to be a hedge, there because of worries about people taking KI in massive doses under normal conditions. The fact sheet was released long before the earthquake, when nobody expected a catastrophic accident. Which, like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody ever expects.
In terms of timing, how long it would take for particles to travel from Japan to North America, I’ve seen estimates ranging from 36 hours to ten days. I have no idea how to evaluate which is more accurate.
Addendum and Note to Self for Future Zombie Apocalypses: next time buy provisions first, then blog about it.
Interactive forecast graph available here. What does piss me off, however, is that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, an arm of the United Nations, refused to release this map to the New York Times. “On Wednesday, the agency declined to release its Japanese forecast, which The New York Times obtained from other sources. The forecast was distributed widely to the agency’s member states.”
That means the bastards (by this I mean the various agencies, not the Japanese) are planning on covering up information.
Another thing I don’t get about the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Organization map, is that if they’re using arbitrary units, and clearly setting Fukushima at 1, then why does their legend go above 1. It’s not as though the radiation could intensify as it disperses. Somebody either wasn’t thinking, or they want people to have a visual effect of “oh, we’re nowhere near the maximum…”