This month, some Illinois residents are getting something different for the holidays: free potassium iodide pills provided by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Over 60,000 Illinois households will receive a two-day supply of pills. Potassium iodide protects your thyroid in case of an accident at a nuclear power plant.
Early Wednesday morning in Clinton just off the square, Darvin’s Barber Shop is open for business. Owner, Darvin Volker brushes off the leather barber chair inside his old fashioned store with wood paneled walls, baseball caps hanging from the ceiling, and a framed picture of John Wayne. Darvin’s is the local hangout for guys like Tom Larkin, an 83-year-old retired dentist who goes by the name “Doc.”
“I think I’ve been cuttin’ your hair for 52 years,” says Darvin.
“My God, Darvin. Well, I’ve still got hair to cut, haven’t I? It’s changed colors!” laughs Doc.
This morning’s conversations revolve around the holidays, the weather, wives and now, Clinton’s nuclear power plant. Darvin’s Barber Shop is located within a 10-mile radius of the Clinton Power Station. That radius is called the Emergency Planning Zone or EPZ. This month, residents living within the EPZ’s of Illinois’ six operating nuclear power plants are receiving vouchers for a free, two-day supply of potassium iodide pills. The non-prescription drug protects your thyroid in case of an accident at a nuclear power plant. Darvin says he’ll be getting his supply this week.
“So we should be pretty well set,” he says. “Hope we never have to use them.”
And they probably never will. There’s no imminent danger at any of Illinois’ nuclear power plants. Clinton’s Emergency Management Agency coordinator, Teresa Barnett says distributing potassium iodide pills is strictly a precautionary measure.
“Just one more level of preparedness, so if it was needed, then those families have it readily on hand and available,” she says.
So here’s how it works: iodine is vital to our health. We get it from salt and seafood, and any iodine we take in is funneled to our thyroid gland.
“It’s used by the thyroid gland in order to produce the thyroid hormones,” says Dr. Hady Sfeir, an endocrinologist with OSF Medical Group in Peoria. “The hormones coming from the thyroid gland are essential in order to control the metabolism, improve the metabolism, keep the metabolism going. They’re also essential for many organ functions in the human system, including the heart, the lung the bones and keeping a good energy level for ourselves day by day.”
In the event of a nuclear reactor melt down, radioactive iodine, known as I-131, could potentially escape into the environment. It can be breathed in or ingested through food and water, and our bodies can’t distinguish between stable iodine and I-131. So it all gets taken up into our thyroid gland, exposing it to radiation, increasing the risk for thyroid cancer. So to prevent I-131 from being absorbed, Sfeir says potassium iodide pills flood the thyroid with stable iodine.
“It will saturate the receptors so in case somebody gets exposed to radioactive iodine, these receptors will not take in any more radioactivity so hence they get protected against any possible radioactive accidents in the future,” he says.
While other radioactive materials can be expelled during a nuclear event, potassium iodide only protects against I-131. And like any pill, use as directed. No one should take potassium iodide pills without the consent of local public health or emergency management officials, like Teressa Barnet.
“And those kinds of decisions are made right here in this room,” says Barnet. “We’re sitting in the emergency operations center.”
She says it’s important that local residents know when and why they should take potassium iodide.
“Make the public aware, keep the public updated and give them the resources that they need,” she says.