With the news full of the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan, it seems that there is a run on potassium iodide tablets, pretty much across the world. In the United States, the president of a company in Virginia (which ran out of the product on Saturday) reports that they continue to receive about three new orders a minute for single $10 packages of the anti-radiation pills. He’s quoted as saying, “Those who don’t get it are crying. They’re terrified.”
Since experts, governments and the World Health Organization are insisting that the risk to people far away from Japan is negligible, I guess this is all evidence of just how little trust people have in their leaders and their supposed betters, and I can’t say I blame them one bit.
With regard to the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the U.S.S.R., some time spent on Wikipedia finds that when W.H.O. researchers investigated over fifteen years later, they found “the increase in incidence [of thyroid cancer] has been documented up to 500 km from the accident site…significant doses from radioactive iodine can occur hundreds of kilometers from the site, beyond emergency planning zones.” And: “The number of people with thyroid cancer…has exceeded expectations. Over 11,000 cases have already been reported.”
The thyroid is affected by the emission of radioactive iodine, which is a product of nuclear fission. So, a nuclear explosion or an accident at a nuclear power plant can release this. Absorbed by the thyroid, the effect is highly carcinogenic. Again studying the Chernobyl accident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the U.S. found that, “As of 1996, except for thyroid cancer, there has been no confirmed increase in the rates of other cancers, including leukemia, among the … public, that have been attributed to releases from the accident.” Hence the focus on prophylactic doses of potassium iodide to prevent thyroid cancer in these situations. The potassium iodide, when taken in such an event, essentially takes up the space in the thyroid where the radioactive iodine would otherwise go.
I don’t really worry that the effects of the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan are going to reach me where I live in New York City. However, it is fairly easy for me to be sanguine in the current situation: I already have a supply of potassium iodide stashed away in the medicine cabinet. The world being what it is has been since September 11th, 2001 — and knowing that New York City is likely the number one target in the world for any jihadists who manage to get their hands on a nuclear bomb — I ordered some online some years ago. I figured that a small nuclear weapon set off in the Financial District would certainly not kill everyone in Manhattan outright, so it seemed reasonable to prepare for myself and my loved ones to survive such an occurrence. (Unfortunately, potassium iodide does not protect against the effects of a dirty bomb, which doesn’t involve fission.)
Prompted by the current talk on this subject, I thought I’d check the expiration date on the package, and, indeed, the tablets technically expired about one year ago. I wondered whether the potassium iodide in the tablets would really have lost its effectiveness, or whether this was just another example of government over-regulation. None other than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission provided the answer, on their page of FAQs about potassium iodide. In answer to the question, “Is it safe to take KI tablets with an expired shelf-life?” they answer:
Yes, potassium iodide tablets are inherently stable and do not lose their effectiveness over time. Manufacturers must label their products with a shelf-life to ensure that consumers purchase safe and useful products.
So, manufacturers have to put an expiration date on such products even if the products do not actually expire. We can indeed score one more for federal over-regulation. (Wasn’t Al Gore supposed to have fixed all this back in the 1990s?)
I suppose the manufacturers don’t mind too much, as customers are led to refresh their supplies even though there is no need. It’s instead the customers who lose out, by needlessly spending money. Well, not this customer.
The Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” is a good one to take to heart. But, please God, all the supplies of potassium iodide pills will continue gathering dust, falling centuries past their expiration dates, in New York City and everywhere else.
I fear that this is an unrealistic prayer, however (human free will being the snare that it always has been).