Health officials warn against needlessly taking iodine supplements

— ONLINE: Remapping Debate editor Craig Gurian reports that the U.S. Department of Energy has been selectively using and omitting information to downplay the general risk that radiation poses to the public in situations separate and apart from that which may be currently occurring in Japan.


POULSBO — Iodine supplements flew off the shelves at Central Market and Poulsbo Compounding Pharmacy after reports that radiation was leaking from Japan’s quake- and tsunami-damaged nuclear power plants.

But local, federal and international health officials say needlessly taking iodine supplements can harm you. They also say that although radiation from Japan’s nuclear power plants has been detected in Washington state, it’s well below levels that would be a health concern.

Pharmacist Brandon Knott said Poulsbo Compounding Pharmacy sold a month’s supply of potassium iodide in one day, on March 14, as Japan’s nuclear crisis unfolded. “Our phones were ringing non-stop,” he said.

The pharmacy’s billboard on Hostmark Avenue was advertising iodine supplements Tuesday, but Knott said the pharmacy “respects the position” of Dr. David Brownstein, medical director of the Center for Holistic Medicine in West Bloomfield, Mich., and author of books on the use of supplements, including iodine: “In general, if you feel you are iodine deficient, you may want to take some supplement. If you are in doubt, talk to your doctor,” Knott said.

Knott said radiation levels from Japan “aren’t warranting” the use of potassium iodide. “The risk is pretty nominal. People are real concerned because they can see it (in media coverage). But we are exposed to so much background radiation every day.”

Iodine is necessary for thyroid gland function; the thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate the rate of metabolism and affect the growth and rate of function of many other systems in the body. The hormones are synthesized utilizing iodine and tyrosine.

According to the World Health Organization, potassium iodide pills may be given to protect the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine, which can lead to thyroid cancer. But taking too much iodine can lead to other medical complications, particularly in individuals with kidney problems.

“You should only take potassium iodide when it is recommended by public health authorities,” the World Health Organization states on its website,

Dave Koehmstedt, pharmacist at Kitsap Pharmacy in Central Market, said he advises people how iodine works and that, “Chances are they don’t need it. But some people want to have it on hand.”

Others at the store said algae, seaweed and other iodine-rich food products were also big sellers.

At Rite Aid in Poulsbo, pharmacist KC Tan referred all questions to the corporate office. Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flower would not comment on potassium iodide sales at the local store, saying the company does not release sales information.

A state Health Department air monitor in Seattle has detected trace levels of radiation in connection with Japan’s nuclear emergency, the department reported Tuesday. The amounts of radioactive iodine are “millions of times lower than levels that would be a health concern,” the department reported. “Despite these very small amounts, the state’s overall background radiation levels haven’t risen.”

That determination is consistent with findings reported by federal and Canadian agencies and by independent researchers, the department reported. “As expected, because of the distance from Japan and air mixing, radiation reaching our state is so diluted there is no health risk here, making protective action unnecessary.” In addition, the strength of radioactive iodine, which has a relatively short half-life, would be reduced by radioactive decay.

Regarding the use of potassium iodide, the Health Department stated, “People in Washington shouldn’t take potassium iodide, also known as KI, because of what’s happened in Japan. Only people who work in or around nuclear power plants during an emergency, or who live near such a plant and can’t get away, should take KI.”

The state Health Department’s website is updated daily to provide the latest information about radiation monitoring in Washington, including air monitoring data.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, exposure to 50 to 200 rem — a unit of radiation dose — may cause illness but will rarely be fatal. Doses of 200 to 1,000 rem will probably cause serious illness. Doses of more than 1,000 rems are almost invariably fatal.

The state’s monitors show normal levels of background radiation, about 0.010 millirem. A millirem is one-thousandth of a rem.

According to the state Health Department, coastal Washingtonians are exposed to about 620 millirem per year from natural sources, like foods, medical X-rays, and soil. By comparison, a tooth is exposed to 20 to 25 millirem in a dental X-ray.

“We don’t expect radiation traveling in the atmosphere from Japan to be much above the harmless background levels we commonly see,” the Health Department reported. “Health effects from radiation exposure start to show when a person receives a dose of 20,000 millirem — equal to getting about 2,000 chest X-rays, all at the same time."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that in a typical day, "Americans receive doses of radiation from natural sources like rocks, bricks and the sun that are about 100,000 times higher than what we have detected coming from Japan. For example, the levels we’re seeing coming from Japan are 100,000 times lower than what you get from taking a roundtrip international flight."

EPA’s monitors in Anaheim and Riverside, Calif., and in Seattle detected minuscule quantities of iodine isotopes and other radioactive particles that pose no health concern at the detected levels. Readings are being updated at

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