The Surgeon General Was Not Wrong About KI

Okay, I’ll play the devil’s advocate if no one else will. I think the US Surgeon General is right. People should seriously consider purchasing private stockpiles of potassium iodide for a radiological emergency.

There’s been a lot of hay made in the emergency preparedness community about the recent comments by Dr. Regina Benjamin, the United States Surgeon General, regarding potassium iodide. Let’s start at the beginning of the story, with the interview as I’ve (rather poorly) transcribed it:

Question 1, re: California EOC open

Oh, it’s definitely appropriate. We have to be prepared. I mean, this, we’ve learned from anything. In my experience in Katrina, we need to be as prepared as we can. um, if you don’t need them that’s okay, but the more you prepare, the better you can be. The more lives we can save, the less disability, so whatever we can do to try to plan, um, we need to just be as proactive, as energetic as we can to try to save some lives and keep people as healthy as we can. Also, to educate people on how to be prepared themselves, as well.

Question 2, re: concern on west coast

I think we need to wait and see, but I do think we cant be over prepared. We lean red that with 9/11, we learned that with Katrina, we learned that this weekend with the tsunami, so we have to be ready as much as we can. You know, there’s always gonna be something different that we didn’t prepare for, but the more we are prepared, the better. We can save lives, even if it’s one life we save by being prepared, it’s worth it.

Question 3, re: is stockpiling KI extreme, or a precaution

Well, it’s a precaution. I’m not—you mean stocking up here? (Reporter: Yeah.) I haven’t heard that, but it’s a precaution.

There was a fourth question about HHS response capabilities, but she answered so poorly I believe she was shaken by the KI question and couldn’t put something together and, frankly, it really wasn’t pertinent to today’s post.

Now, most emergency managers are fretting over this (at least I was at the beginning) because of the risk factor. At this time, there is no risk to US residents from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, or any other nuclear reactor for that matter. And KI can have seriously harmful effects if taken inappropriately (e.g., pregnant women and those with thyroid problems). Furthermore, taking regular iodine can be extremely harmful. Add to that combination the fact that KI is only effective against the isotope Iodine-131 (one of at least two, and maybe up to five radioactive elements being found at Fukushima), and it has only been shown to prevent children from developing thyroid cancers as a result of exposure to that particular isotope (read: it’s not been proven to help adults at all).

The worry is that the potential bad is worse than the potential good.

But if you read Dr. Benjamin’s full statement this isn’t a recommendation to run right out and buy lots of KI, it is instead a recommendation that, as a part of being prepared, this is something else folks should consider. She places the Japanese catastrophe squarely within the realm of Hurricane Katrina, implying that people need to be prepared for anything. The media, of course, latch onto one single part of her statement and woefully fail to report the—arguably—more important part on general personal preparedness.

We are in one of those unique periods where people are not only paying attention, but are interested in getting prepared. We should be making every effort to push preparedness messages now. Every effort. Dr. Benjamin is doing that.

Now, I will admit that it could have been phrased better, understanding how the media would’ve focused on the KI statement, but she’s no C. Everett Koop.

If I was going to give that advice, I would be sure to couch it in all of those things I mentioned before, only in the event of a confirmed release, not if you have thyroid problems, better to shelter-in-place, etc. In my eyes, the biggest problem with Dr. Benjamin’s statement was that it was kind of one-off, and not part of some coordinated effort to communicate on issues of preparedness. And apparently, I’m not the only person who thinks this. I’ve heard rumblings of a call recently between emergency managers in western states with the federal government about the Feds stepping up and taking the lead on communicating during this disaster. (If anyone was on the call, I’d love to know about the content of the call.) Perhaps we’ll see some sort of coordinated campaign, focusing more on the general preparedness issues, and maybe not ignoring people’s real desire to get prepared for radiological disasters.

(And if they don’t, I worry that this whole situation might end up looking like the CDC “gas mask” debacle of 2001.)


2 thoughts on “The Surgeon General Was Not Wrong About KI”

  1. Here’s the only problem with the idea that the SG wasn’t wrong – she’s supposed to be the spokesperson for the larger US public health community, and they need to be speaking with one voice, not firing from the hip with a confusing statement that generates panic in the public. Being in CA and having friends in local public health (I’m in Fed emergency management) all I’m hearing is “When are you people going to get your act together and put out useful information?”

  2. TOTALLY. I’ve been complaining about the same thing all week. For DAYS, the only official communication was the (what I considered very patronizing) NRC release. In the interview, you can hear her surprise at being asked the question, like no one at the federal level had even considered that the public would be seeking out KI. Doesn’t bode well for locals depending on federal public information leaning forward in an emergency.That said, the flow of info is getting better, and I’m sure that Dr. Benjamin will never make that mistake again. And hey, like the subtitle of the blog says, what you say is as important as what you do. Tough lesson to have to learn over and over.Thanks, as always, for stopping by Joel.

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