Children, infants and fetuses need iodine to protect their active and developing thyroid gland from any genetic changes that could cause cancer later in life, he added. For adults, the effects, if any, from exposure to radioactive iodine would not be seen for years, he said.
Potassium iodide pills are generally safe, Inabnet noted. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, side effects rarely occur. However, there are potential side effects for people who suffer from thyroid disease, such as Graves' disease.
Iodine is essential for the thyroid gland -- which regulates the body's metabolism and calcium balance -- to make its hormones. The gland cannot distinguish between iodine and radioactive iodine, so it will use either. The idea behind taking iodide pills is to saturate the thyroid with iodine so it won't use any radioactive iodine, Inabnet explained.
Potassium iodide provides protection only for the thyroid from radioiodines, according to the FDA. "It has no impact on the uptake by the body of other radioactive materials and provides no protection against external irradiation of any kind," the agency noted. Moreover, the effect from one dose lasts only a day.
The agency cautioned that potassium iodide should be an adjunct to "evacuation, sheltering and control of foodstuffs."
The Japanese nuclear accident has opened a debate about whether the U.S. government should make potassium iodide more available to people who live near nuclear power plants, Bloomberg News reported.
Currently, potassium iodide pills are given to people who live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant, Williams said.
In light of the radiation released from the Japanese power plant, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has asked the White House to provide potassium iodide to people living within 20 miles of nuclear power
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