Do iodine products protect against exposure to radiation?

There is a great deal of misinformation circulating the internet regarding the role of iodine in radiation emergencies. It is extremely important for individuals to realize that chronic misuse of iodine supplementation can lead to serious health concerns. Large doses of iodine intake – like excessive intake of any other mineral – is not generally appropriate except under the supervision of a medical professional.

Iodine is an essential trace mineral. Iodine is found in trace amounts throughout the human body, but it is especially concentrated in the thyroid. 10-20 mg of iodine can be found in the average healthy thyroid.

Humans obtain iodine from a number of food sources, with increased levels coming from sea-based food sources (animals and plants). Because of its importance in human nutrition, iodine is commonly added to salt to help prevent deficiencies.

Unfortunately, certain types of iodine are not beneficial to human health. Iodine-131 (a very specific iodine isotope) is a radioactive byproduct of uranium fission. In certain extreme circumstances, iodine-131 may leak into the air or ground if a uranium-based nuclear power plant experiences severe structural or physical damage. Thankfully, iodine-131 has a relatively short half-life (8 days), limiting the primary risk of exposure to those in the immediate vicinity of the damaged plant.

Because the human body is unable to distinguish between safe iodine and iodine-131, it is possible for iodine-131 to enter the body and accumulate in iodine-rich areas, particularly the thyroid. (It is worth noting that trace amounts of radioactive compounds enter the body all the time, and the body has mechanisms for dealing with radioactive compounds in normal amounts.)

If the amount of iodine-131 that enters the body exceeds known safe levels, it is possible for the thyroid to accumulate iodine-131 in unsafe amounts. A relatively simple way to prevent this is to flood the body with high levels of good iodine (typically potassium iodide). Once the thyroid reaches “full iodine capacity,” it stops absorbing more, allowing unsafe iodine-131 to be excreted instead of absorbed. Iodine supplements designed specifically for radiation treatment typically provide a 130mg adult dosage. (Note: USANA products have a much smaller dosage of iodine and should not be taken with the intent of high iodine dosing.)

While this procedure may seem straightforward, there are specific criteria that must be met before flooding the body with iodine, because excessive iodine intake is not without consequences. Many government organizations have issued excellent guidance on this topic; a very concise FAQ on the topic is available from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services:

If you have concerns about radiation exposure, please contact your local health care professional. Do not take USANA supplements – or any other supplements – at levels above recommended dosages without first consulting a doctor.

Finally, if you do decide to purchase potassium iodide as part of an emergency preparedness plan, please note that only a handful of companies have received approval to sell pharmacological doses of potassium iodide directly to consumers. Please contact your local health department for additional information.

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