Additional Titles





By David M. Bresnahan

July 12, 2002


WASHINGTON -- A small pill may save the lives of your family in the event of a nuclear accident or terrorist attack, but those pills are not on hand in most states so you could be in big trouble.

Potassium iodide, known as KI, is a nonprescription drug that is proven to prevent thyroid cancer if taken immediately after a nuclear accident or attack. Thyroid cancer is the main cause of death after radiation exposure, but it can be prevented by daily doses of potassium iodide, because it effectively protects against absorption of radioactive iodine.

The federal government is quietly stockpiling the radiation protection drug on military bases and in the offices of emergency workers, but the average member of the public will not get pills from the government and must buy and store their own supply.

The Department of Justice has previously announced that nuclear plants are a target for terrorists. The release of radiation in a nuclear plant attack could kill millions unless they take the potassium iodide immediately after such an attack.

Most countries in Europe have either already distributed the life-saving pills to the public or are in the process of doing so. The U.S. does not plan to take similar actions.

Out of concern for our readers, has arranged a way for you to purchase your own supply at about 13 cents a pill (click here).

Only three states are distributing limited amounts of the life-saving pills even though the drug has been made available to all 50 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), according to a report on CNN Headline News Tuesday. Very few members of the public even know potassium iodide exists. Politicians are worried that if people have the pills they will not respond to evacuation orders, or that distribution will cause panic. Activists on both sides of the nuclear plant debate believe that public knowledge of potassium iodide will somehow hurt their cause.

"The Commission (NRC) has found that potassium iodide is a reasonable, prudent and inexpensive supplement to evacuation and sheltering for specific local conditions. The Commission left it to the states to make a final decision on whether to use it in their emergency preparedness program, but decided to fund the initial purchases of potassium iodide for any state that decided to stockpile it,"

01-135.html said the recommendation from the NRC.

The NRC only has $800,000 to fund initial stockpiles of potassium iodide for "one to two doses for individuals within about 10 miles around each plant." People further away are not included in the program, and the supply that is given to people will only last at the most for two days.

The is no law or regulation preventing the public from buying the pills, but locating a supply source is difficult - and most of the public is unaware the pills exist.

"Because FDA has authorized the non-prescription sale of 'radiation emergency potassium iodide,' it is legally available to organizations or individuals who, based on their own corporate or personal analysis, choose to have the drug immediately available," according to NRC Information Notice No. 88-15.

In 1979 there were no potassium iodide pills on hand locally when the Three Mile Island nuclear accident took place. An emergency shipment was manufactured and brought in by the Air Force - six days late. Local officials secretly locked up the pills in a warehouse and never distributed them because there were not enough for everyone and they did not want to panic those who would not get a supply. Fortunately the accident was controlled and the pills were not needed.

In 1986 the pills did save lives when the Chernobyl nuclear plant blew. The people living in the 19 communities in about a 30-mile radius of Chernobyl had been provided with potassium iodide. Only now is the impact of that pill becoming known. There are about 11,000 cases of children with thyroid cancer as of the year 2000, with 97 percent of them living more than 30 miles from Chernobyl where the pills were not distributed - many as far as 200 miles away.

"It should be in the medicine chest," said Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund and president of the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, speaking to News Day. "Potassium iodide is one of the few things we can do that will, without question, save lives if there is some kind of nuclear catastrophe."

Cost to states is not an issue because the NRC has funds budgeted to pay for the pills so states can have them for free, but there are few takers. The New York Times reported that the cost to the government is 17.8 cents per pill. Readers of are now able to purchase their own bottles at about 13 cents a pill while limited supplies last. The Journal of American Medicine has issued instructions to doctors on how to deal with a terrorist nuclear attack, as well as how to deal with the effects of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. The NRC issued a report stating that the only way to protect people who do not have potassium iodide is to evacuate them from the area, which the report acknowledges is difficult in the event of a large catastrophe.

The World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, the American Thyroid Association, and other agencies all claim that potassium iodide is a lifesaver.

Many other countries around the world have been passing out supplies of potassium iodide to the general public since the beginning of the year, according to press reports in the New York Times and foreign papers. Even countries like Ireland, with no nuclear plants, has distributed potassium iodide to everyone in case an attack occurs in England and the wind carries radiation across the Irish Sea.

"The U.S. military overseas, their families, U.S. civilian workers and contractors may be at risk from hostile actions and other events against nuclear power plants resulting in radioactive iodine release," wrote William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs in a Nov. 19, 2001 memorandum. He directed the Army, Navy and Air Force commanders to assess the risk to troops and to develop "implementation plans on the use of potassium iodide."

The military and federal agencies are quietly stocking up, but only for their own people. States have been given the responsibility for local populations, and few are responding, which means the average citizen may not be able to get the pills fast enough. More importantly, the NRC supply is only around 8 million. Even if the states accepted the offer from the NRC the available supply is inadequate to meet the need.

There are other small stockpiles, such as the 1.6 million pills the Department of Health and Human Services has hidden in a warehouse, but the time required to get the supply to the area where it is needed is significant.

The reality is that the stockpiles of potassium iodide are insignificant compared to the potential need, and the supply is not likely to increase in the near future. Unless concerned individuals purchase their own supply it is unlikely they will have the pills if the need arises.

Potassium iodide can be purchased by individuals without a prescription, but it is not readily available, and those who do have supplies are selling it for nearly $1 per pill in a package of only 14 pills. In an effort to help it's readers, Investigative has negotiated with a supplier to provide family size bottles of the pills for about 13 cents per pill with reduced prices for multiple bottles. Orders can be placed securely by credit card or electronic check by clicking here while supplies last. The pills must be taken immediately if there is a chance of radiation exposure and then every day for as long as the risk continues. Instructions recommend that adults take two 85 mg pills per day and children take one. Purchasers should read the detailed information that comes with each bottle.

Radiation can remain for an extended time after an accident or and attack. One bottle is enough for a family of four for one month. Possible locations for personal storage of the pills may be in 72-hour kits, first aid kits, each vehicle, at work, and perhaps in a vacation home or RV so each family member can get a dose as quickly as possible in an emergency.

"We would recommend that every single family stock potassium iodide tablets. It is not good enough to be in a central repository. If you don't take them very shortly after exposure - within a couple of hours - they lose their efficacy. If it's more than six hours, it does nothing. Don't bother," recommends Redlener.

To receive an automated e-mail containing answers to frequently asked questions written by the NRC, send a blank e-mail to To order potassium iodide while limited supplies last click here 

David M. Bresnahan - All Rights Reserved

David M. Bresnahan  is an award-winning independent investigative journalist. He maintains an archive of his work at  and offers a free e-mail alert so you will not miss any of his news stories or commentaries.