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Issues Of The Environment: Ann Arbor Looks To Stockpile Potassium Iodide In Case Of Fermi 2 Crisis

Feb 27, 2019

Ann Arbor City Councilwoman Anne Bannister
Credit City of Ann Arbor / a2gov.org

The Fermi 2 nuclear power plant is about 30 miles from Ann Arbor.  A radiation leak could have dramatic impacts on public health.  Ann Arbor City Council has passed a resolution to begin the process of arming residents with tablets that can protect the human thyroid system.  Ann Arbor City Councilwoman Anne Bannister discussses the plan with WEMU's David Fair in this week's "Issues of the Environment."

Overview

  • The Fermi 2 nuclear power plant on the shore of Lake Erie is about 30 miles from Ann Arbor, and it has produced about twenty percent of the power generated by DTE since the 1980s.  The Fermi 2 plant uses a Mark 1 boiling water reactor, the same technology as the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which melted down during strong earthquakes in Japan in 2011.  (Thus far, there are no plans to build Fermi 3, according to DTE, but they did purchase a license to build for $300 million.  The boom in fracked natural gas since 2007 appears to have halted plans for more nuclear power.)

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in the unlikely event of a meltdown at the nuclear power plant, dangerous radioactive iodine would be released, and those within 50 miles of the plant would be most affected.  KI (potassium iodide) is a salt of stable (not radioactive) iodine that can help block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid gland, thus protecting this gland from radiation injury. The thyroid gland is the part of the body that is most sensitive to radioactive iodine.

  • Washtenaw County does not stockpile potassium iodide, however the state’s Emergency Operations Center can access the CDC’s supply in an emergency for the country to distribute to the public. The proposed resolution is in response to concerns that there could be a delay as great as 12 in accessing this supply, and many people would already be damaged by then.

  • Anne Bannister, First Ward Councilmember for Ann Arbor, says the resolution directs the city to lobby the city’s lobbying the state and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with the hope that Americans with 50 miles of the Fermi 2 plant would receive the same access to KI that Canada provides its Ontario residents living the same distance from the plant.

Facts About KI (Potassium Iodide)

How can radioactive iodine hurt me?

External exposure to large amounts of I-131 can cause burns to the eyes and on the skin.  Internal exposure can affect the thyroid gland, a small organ located in the neck near the Adam’s apple.  The thyroid gland uses iodine to produce thyroid hormones and cannot distinguish between radioactive iodine and stable (nonradioactive) iodine.  If I-131 were released into the atmosphere, people could ingest it in food products or water, or breathe it in. In addition, if dairy animals consume grass contaminated with I-131, the radioactive iodine will be incorporated into their milk.  Consequently, people can receive internal exposure from drinking the milk or eating dairy products made from contaminated milk.  Once inside the body, I-131 will be absorbed by the thyroid gland exposing it to radiation and potentially increasing the risk for thyroid cancer or other thyroid problems.

What is Potassium Iodide (KI)?

KI (potassium iodide) is a salt of stable (not radioactive) iodine that can help block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid gland, thus protecting this gland from radiation injury.

The thyroid gland is the part of the body that is most sensitive to radioactive iodine.

People should take KI (potassium iodide) only on the advice of public health or emergency management officials.  There are health risks associated with taking KI.

KI (potassium iodide) does not keep radioactive iodine from entering the body and cannot reverse the health effects caused by radioactive iodine once the thyroid is damaged.

  • KI (potassium iodide) only protects the thyroid, not other parts of the body, from radioactive iodine.

KI (potassium iodide) cannot protect the body from radioactive elements other than radioactive iodine—if radioactive iodine is not present, taking KI is not protective and could cause harm.

Table salt and foods rich in iodine do not contain enough iodine to block radioactive iodine from getting into your thyroid gland.  Do not use table salt or food as a substitute for KI.

Do not use dietary supplements that contain iodine in the place of KI (potassium iodide).  They can be harmful and non-efficacious.  Only use products that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

How does KI (potassium iodide) work?

The thyroid gland cannot tell the difference between stable and radioactive iodine.  It will absorb both.

KI (potassium iodide) blocks radioactive iodine from entering the thyroid.  When a person takes KI, the stable iodine in the medicine gets absorbed by the thyroid.  Because KI contains so much stable iodine, the thyroid gland becomes “full” and cannot absorb any more iodine—either stable or radioactive—for the next 24 hours.

KI (potassium iodide) may not give a person 100% protection against radioactive iodine.  Protection will increase depending on three factors.

  • Time after contamination: The sooner a person takes KI, the more time the thyroid will have to “fill up” with stable iodine.
  • Absorption: The amount of stable iodine that gets to the thyroid depends on how fast KI is absorbed into the blood.
  • Dose of radioactive iodine: Minimizing the total amount of radioactive iodine a person is exposed to will lower the amount of harmful radioactive iodine the thyroid can absorb.

Who can take KI (potassium iodide)?

The thyroid glands of a fetus and of an infant are most at risk of injury from radioactive iodine.  Young children and people with low amounts of iodine in their thyroid are also at risk of thyroid injury.  Infants (including breast-fed infants), children, young adults, pregnant or breastfeeding women under age 40 should all take KI in the event of a meltdown.  However, adults over 40 years should not take KI (potassium iodide) unless public health or emergency management officials say that contamination with a very large dose of radioactive iodine is expected.

  • Adults older than 40 years have the lowest chance of developing thyroid cancer or thyroid injury after contamination with radioactive iodine.
  • Adults older than 40 are more likely to have allergic reactions to or adverse effects from KI.

Where can I get KI (potassium iodide)?

KI (potassium iodide) is available without a prescription.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) External Web Site Icon has approved some brands of KI.  People should only take KI (potassium iodide) on the advice of public health or emergency management officials.  There are health risks associated with taking KI.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu