People across the world wait anxiously for the next development in the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown scare. This map of Japan shows the potential radius the radiation threat extends from the nuclear power plant with a situation. People from Sendai and Fukushima are being shuttled south to Tokyo, which is just out of harm’s way for the time being.
On the West Coast and here in the Chicago area, potassium iodide pills are flying off the shelves at health food stores. But do they really work against radiation? And what are the effects of radiation exposure on our health?
We spoke with a local doctor about exposure, testing and treatment. Here is our Q&A with Dr. Dino Rumoro, Chairman for the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rush University Medical Center.
What are the effects of radiation exposure?
The short-term, immediate effects range from being lightheaded, fatigued and weak to dizziness, nausea and vomiting. At higher exposures, you would experience more sickness: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding, seizures. And depending on the level of radiation exposure, skin burns, cancer; and in higher levels, coma and death.
Have you seen any local patients who were worried about radiation exposure?
Yes, we have had a couple in the past 48 hours that came in, including someone who was in proximity to Japan.
When a patient comes in worried about radiation exposure, how do you respond?
I talk to them to get a better history of how close they really came to the nuclear reactor site. And I explain how close they would have to be to have an adverse effect from radiation exposure.
How would you actually test a patient for radiation exposure?
I would use a Geiger counter to see if there was evidence of radiation. If it was positive, then the patient would have to take their clothes off and bag them, so as not to contaminate others. You don’t need to de-contaminate the patient at this point, there is nothing to wash off. The ionizing radiation has entered their body already.
Depending on how high the level of radiation is, I would draw blood, do a full blood count to get an idea of how high the dose of radiation was. If their lymphocytes are low, then it was most likely a high-dose exposure. It may give you an idea of what the outcome might be.
What is the treatment for radiation exposure?
For acute radiation exposure, I would prescribe 300 milligrams of potassium iodide a day for 10 days. We use a liquid in the hospital setting because it has a higher concentration than pills.
What exactly does potassium iodide do?
It protects the thyroid gland. Radioactive isotopes can get into a patient’s system and go into the thyroid gland and cause damage. The potassium iodide blocks receptors in the thyroid gland so the uptake of radioactive iodine, which is coming from the nuclear plant, is blocked.
Do you recommend taking potassium iodide to combat possible radiation exposure?
In the U.S. — no. Plus, potassium iodide is strictly to protect the thyroid and doesn’t do anything for bone marrow suppression. It doesn’t reverse that or prevent it. And it has no effect on the gastrointestinal system, which is most sensitive to radiation.
In Japan, the reality is that you are not going to have enough potassium iodide to treat everyone. You have to treat the most vulnerable who have been exposed first: children and pregnant women.
What are the risks of too much potassium iodide?
You can induce thyroid problems. You can have iodide-induced hypothyroidism, which is a slower functioning thyroid and will escalate the disease process.
Dr. Rumoro warns against the over-the-counter potassium iodide pills. He says the doses that are given, which are less than 40 milligrams per pill, will have “zero effect on acute radiation exposure.”
Registered dietician David Grotto also warns against purchasing potassium iodide supplements online from companies that are not well-established, and warns against any products that are not FDA-approved.
Grotto, author of 101 Optimal Life Foods, has written a blog about the best natural food sources of iodine. For more information, click here.
For local residents wondering about nuclear power in our area, the following map shows the locations of nuclear power stations in Illinois (continue reading to see the map):