TOKYO (majirox news) – Americans are told that potassium iodide (KI) tablets are available for free at the embassy or at the New Sanno Hotel (a U.S. military managed facility) upon presentation of a valid U.S. passport and for non-American immediate family members with proof of their relationship, in an American Citizen Services notice from the American Embassy on March 31.
However, the same notice warns that there are risks with taking KI and that the tablets should only be taken upon the advice of a doctor, public health officials, or emergency management officials. In the same notice the embassy states that Tokyo tap water is safe to drink.
In a March 30 travel warning by the U.S. Department of State, U.S. citizens are advised that non-essential travel to various areas in Japan, including Tokyo and Yokohama, should be deferred. The advisory also recommends – as a precaution – that U.S. citizens within 50 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant should evacuate or take shelter indoors.
The British Embassy issued similar advice against non-essential travel to Tokyo and said that British nationals in Tokyo and the North East of Japan should consider leaving. The embassy’s March 24 notice states that “a significant increase in the radiation levels in Tokyo, well outside the exclusion zone, would only occur in a worst case scenario.” Still, the embassy also began distributing tablets as a “contingency measure” with a specific warning saying, ‘”Scientific advice is that the tablets should not be taken in the current situation.”
The Australian government has sent a supply of pills to their Tokyo embassy. But rather than hand them out, the pillls are provided to the embassy as a precautionary measure and would only be made available when deemed medically necessary for Aussies in Japan who have been exposed to substantial doses of radiation. As for travel, it’s more of the same – unessential travel is advised against and the 50 mile safety zone from the Daiichi plant is also in effect.
So what’s a body to do? Grab a handful of pills as a “precautionary measure?” And, what are the consequences of taking KI if one hasn’t been exposed to “substantial doses” of radiation?
First, let’s understand what potassium iodide is. It is a salt of stable – not radioactive – iodine. It’s important for our bodies to use to make thyroid hormones. The thyroid gland controls the body’s activity rate, growth, development, and skin and hair health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults get 150 micrograms of iodine daily. Children under 7 need 90 mcg and those between 7 to 12 should get 120 mcg.
Normally, everyone gets all the stable iodine we need from the food we eat. Seafood can be a significant source. Seaweed and konbu (kelp) offer high amounts. Even every day foods like eggs, cheese, spinach, squash, and mayonnaise can provide an intake of iodine. A quick search on the Internet can turn up a good list of such foods, many of which may already be in one’s cupboard.
What about those tablets the embassies are handing out? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states on their home page that one should only take KI on the advice of emergency management officials, public health officials, or a doctor. There are definitely risks associated with taking KI, but if a doctor or official does order you to take the tablets the benefits certainly outweigh the risks.
Side effects can include gastric upset, allergic reactions (possibly severe), rashes, and inflammation of the salivary glands. Taking a higher than recommended dose, or taking the tablets for several days, can have adverse health effects on the thyroid gland. This is also true if you already have a thyroid disease. Contrary to rumors that are floating around Tokyo one isn’t likely to die from taking the tablets if you haven’t been exposed.
What about running for the hills and avoiding non-essential travel to Tokyo? Is radiation concern a good reason? Tokyo’s current radiation readings are safe at around 0.09 micrograys (microsieverts) per hour. Microgray is a radiation absorbed dose measurement unit into any material, according to aqua calc. The unit sievert specifically measures absorbed radiation that is absorbed by a person.
The recorded normal level, according to Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, is 0.028 to 0.079. The same ministry states that the world’s natural radiation average per person per year is 2,400 microsieverts (μSv). If the readings remain at the current level — they’ve actually been dropping for several days — and one remained outside 24/7 for an entire year, the dosage would be under 800 microsieverts. Other activities such as getting a chest x-ray is 50μS) or taking a round trip flight to New York from Tokyo is 200 μSv.
Flights to and from Japan are not restricted. Travel in and around Tokyo, where most business is done, is unhampered. Hotels are readily available. Food and water is safe. Earthquakes and aftershocks…OK, no guarantees there, but it is not any different than before the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.
Joe Peters is a writer for Majirox News and also runs a Tokyo-based executive search company.