RSC scientists warn against US potassium iodide panic buying

Scientists at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) have warned against the panic buying of potassium iodide tablets as the crisis in Japan continues.

Experts have also cautioned against scaremongering over the effects of the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant, saying that any comparisons with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster are unfounded.

Drug stores in the US have reported a sudden surge in potassium iodide sales, with many customers panic buying as a result of developments in north-east Japan. One drug supplier said it has sold 250,000 pills to US citizens concerned about possible exposure from Japanese nuclear reactors.

By ingesting potassium iodide tablets, a high dose of non-radioactive iodine saturates uptake mechanisms and counters the uptake of radioactive iodine into the thyroid. This competitive binding protects the thyroid from radiation damage by ensuring there is more non-radioactive iodine available for absorption than the radioactive form.

But according to Dr Brian Carter, environmental sciences programme manager at the RSC, there is no need for anyone in the US to stock up on potassium iodide tablets.

’It is highly unlikely that the situation in Japan will lead to a scenario where sufficient quantities of radioactive iodine, produced in a power station as a three per cent fission product, are released into the atmosphere to cause a problem in the US or anywhere else,’ he said. ’For that to happen, huge quantities of iodine would need to be released into the atmosphere. The current situation is not of the same scale as the Chernobyl disaster.

’For the US to be affected, an explosion would have to occur that was powerful enough for radioactive iodine to reach the upper atmosphere, get picked up by the jet stream then carried to the US — a similar situation that occurred with the ash from the volcanic eruption in Iceland last year. It is possible that some radioactive iodine could make it to the US via this route, but it is unlikely that it would be at the level requiring extensive dosing using potassium iodide tablets,’ added Carter.

He said that there was a plentiful global supply of iodine and that the people who do need the tablets are those in and around the exclusion zone in Japan.