Japanese officials are preparing to distribute potassium iodide pills to people living near the nuclear power plants crippled by last week’s earthquake. Harvard Health Letter editor Peter Wehrwein explains what these pills do and who needs them.
The steam emitted by Japan’s failing nuclear reactors contains radioactive iodine-131. People living near the reactors can get substantial doses of iodine-131 by breathing the vapor from the reactors or ingesting iodine-131 from food or water. It accumulates in the thyroid gland, and significantly increases the risk of developing thyroid cancer.