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Thyroid. 1997 Apr;7(2):193-7.

Potassium iodide for thyroid blockade in a reactor accident: administrative policies that govern its use.

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New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, New York 10021, USA.


A marked increase in thyroid cancer among young children who were in the vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant at the time of the 1986 accident strongly suggests a possible causal relationship to the large amounts of radioactive iodine isotopes in the resulting fallout. Although remaining indoors, restricting consumption of locally produced milk and foodstuffs, and evacuation are important strategies in a major breach-of-containment accident, stable potassium iodide (KI) prophylaxis given shortly before or immediately after exposure can reduce greatly the thyroidal accumulation of radioiodines and the resulting radiation dose. Concerns about possible side effects of large-scale, medically unsupervised KI consumption largely have been allayed in light of the favorable experience in Poland following the Chernobyl accident; 16 million persons received single administrations of KI with only rare occurrence of side effects and with a probable 40% reduction in projected thyroid radiation dose. Despite the universal acceptance of KI as an effective thyroid protective agent, supplies of KI in the US are not available for public distribution in the event of a reactor accident largely because government agencies have argued that stockpiling and distribution of KI to other than emergency workers cannot be recommended in light of difficult distribution logistics, problematic administrative issue, and a calculated low cost-effectiveness. However, KI in tablet form is expensive and has a long shelf life, and many countries have largely stockpiles and distribution programs. The World Health Organization recognizes the benefits of stable KI and urges its general availability. At present there are 110 operating nuclear power plants in the US and more than 300 in the rest of the world. These reactors product 17% of the world's electricity and in some countries up to 60-70% of the total electrical energy. Almost all US nuclear power plants have multistage containment structures with large steel and concrete shells and multiple redundancy of core cooling mechanisms. These successfully prevented the release of major amounts of radionuclides in the Three Mile Island partial loss-of-primary coolant accident in 1979. The Chernobyl accident, in a different type of reactor that is common in Eastern Europe, did not have effective outer shell containment and released almost 50 MCi of 131I compared to the 20 Ci of 131I released at Three Mile Island. Such accidents have precipitated extensive re-evaluation of the design and safety devices of all operating reactors. However, a major contributing factor to the accidents was human error and considerable efforts must be made to train plant operators so they have a better understanding of reactor operation and use of safety mechanisms.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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