Reading Time: 3 minutes

In nearly a third of the states with nuclear power plants, nearby residents do not have the protection of federally-supplied potassium iodide pills for treatment in the event of a radiation crisis like that in Japan.

Nine states — Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas, and Washington — do not participate in the federal program administered by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to NRC records and a survey by the Center.

Only one Wisconsin county participates in the NRC program. Illinois has not joined the federal effort either but organized its own distribution of iodine, said a health department spokesperson there.

Potassium iodide tablets, known as KI, are non-prescription iodine pills. In normal times, iodine — a natural substance — is stored in the human thyroid gland. During a nuclear accident, dangerous amounts of radioactive iodine can be released into the air and accumulate in the thyroid. The KI pills are used to fill the thyroid with safe iodine, reducing the risk of cancer and other diseases.

The U.S. government has purchased and distributed millions of the KI tablets in the last decade. States have offered them to the citizenry in different ways — by mail, at local town halls and government offices, fire houses and retail pharmacies, to cite a few examples.

Japan is bracing for nuclear fallout after last week’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Japanese authorities are distributing 230,000 doses of iodine pills to evacuation centers in the shadow of damaged plants.

The KI pills are not panaceas. They do not, for example, protect other parts of the body from radioactive exposure or poisoning. Overdosing can cause harmful side effects. But when used in the first 24 hours of a nuclear event, while evacuation is underway, KI pills can help protect an endangered population, especially children and pregnant women, federal studies have shown.

“Potassium iodide is a safe, effective and inexpensive means of protecting against the cancer-causing effects of radioactive iodine, which has already been detected around one of the impacted Japanese reactors,” Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said this week. He urged the Obama administration to distribute KI tablets to all U.S. communities within a 20-mile radius of a nuclear power plant.

In 2002 Congress called for such a distribution, but the Bush and Obama administrations have taken advantage of a waiver provision in the law, and the federal program has been limited to a 10-mile zone, in states that choose to participate, the NRC says.

Of the 33 states with nuclear power facilities, according to NRC records, 22 have accepted the KI tablets from the federal government for the protection of their affected communities. Illinois, said Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson, chose to make its own distribution. Wisconsin left it up to individual counties, and supplies pills to retail outlets in the one county that requested them.

“It’s a voluntary program,” said Paul Schmidt, the chief of radiation protection for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. “We make it available through … pharmacies.”

The other states rely mainly on their ability to evacuate the endangered populations quickly. “It is safer and more effective,” said Melanie Rasmusson, the chief of the Iowa Bureau of Radiological Health, especially in rural states like hers.

“For the general public, the iodine is only one of the radioactive chemicals that would be released” and “that one little pill is not going to protect you” from the others, said Peter Ricca, emergency response manager for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. “Having people evacuate is the most effective and best way.”

“There are some ill effects when you take those pills. The population you’re worried about the most is children, and in all these places, in Louisiana and at other power plants, the first thing you would do is evacuate schools and the at-risk population, so they wouldn’t come in contact,” Ricca said. His comments were echoed by officials from Texas, Washington, Nebraska and Arkansas.

In Kansas, KI pills are stocked for emergency workers and for “special populations who might not be able to evacuate easily,” like the residents of hospitals, nursing homes and jails, but not for the general public, the state government informs residents on its web site.

“Evacuation protects the public from all radioactive material that might be released including radioactive iodine,” the state says. “In the event of … very unusual conditions that would make evacuation dangerous, the chosen protective action may be sheltering in your homes or businesses.”

Those Kansans who still want KI tablets, the state suggests, can order them through the Internet.

Markey says that evacuation plans aren’t enough, and he cites the chaos that followed Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Even with advanced warning, “the local and state governments were unable to evacuate effectively, or provide adequate food and water to those who remained behind,” he told President Obama, in a Dec. 1, 2009 letter. And there would be no warning in the case of an earthquake and nuclear emergency, like that which took place in Japan.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.