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Protective pills for residents near nuclear plants endorsed

Paraphrased by:
Steve Waldrop
December 5, 2003

Making potassium iodide pills available to people who live near nuclear power plants has been endorsed by a study panel of the nonprofit National Research Council.

The council report, requested by Congress, said potassium iodide pills should be available to everyone age 40 or younger, especially children and pregnant or lactating women. People over 40 appear to be more resistant to the cancer-causing effects of exposure to radioactive iodine, and are more likely than younger people to develop side effects from the pills, such as diarrhea, joint pains and rashes.

The pills can help protect the thyroid gland of people exposed to radiation if taken a few hours before or after a radioactive release occurs

The report also recommends that states should decide how to stockpile and distribute the pills. In 2001 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that it would provide the pills to states with nuclear plants on request, so they could have the material on hand in case of an emergency. The next year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a policy stating that the pills should be distributed to emergency workers and institutionalized persons and should be considered for the general public living within 10 miles of a nuclear reactor.

According to the new report, 17 states that have nuclear power plants within or near their borders now have programs for pre-distribution of the pills to the general public. 12 states with nuclear power plants do not have potassium iodide distribution programs in place for their general public.

Potassium iodide will not protect against other isotopes that might be released in a nuclear plant accident or sabotage. The report also said the pills would not protect against cesium or cobalt, that terrorist might try to spread by using a so-called "dirty bomb."