Households, schools and child-care centers near nuclear power plants should keep potassium iodide pills on hand to protect children from an accidental or intentional radiation release, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.
The pills protect people from getting thyroid cancer.
Bioterrorism concerns and the war in Iraq helped prompt the new policy, Dr. Sophie J. Balk, a New York pediatrician who heads the academy committee that wrote the policy, said Monday.
The policy is aimed at families, schools and child-care centers within 10 miles of nuclear plants. Schools and child-care facilities within that distance should stockpile the pills and develop plans for how to distribute them in the event of a disaster, the academy said.
"It may be prudent to consider stockpiling potassium iodide within a larger radius because of more distant wind-borne fallout, as occurred after Chernobyl," the 1986 Ukrainian nuclear plant catastrophe, the academy said.
The academy posted the policy late last week on its Web site and plans to publish it in the June edition of its medical journal, Pediatrics.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, federal nuclear regulators have made potassium iodide available to states with nuclear plants.
Potassium iodide can block the body's absorption of harmful radiation and help prevent thyroid cancer, which can result from excessive radiation. The nonprescription pills are available at some pharmacies, over the Internet and by phone from some distributors.
Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of radiation, in part because they're closer to the ground, where fallout settles, and because their bodies absorb and metabolize substances differently, the policy said.
There are different forms of radiation that pose various health dangers, including increasing the risk of several types of cancer. Potassium iodide protects against one type of radiation - radioactive iodine - and one type of cancer - thyroid.
When ingested, the pills flood the thyroid and block inhaled radioiodines from being absorbed by the gland, located at the base of the neck. The thyroid gland produces hormones that help regulate body metabolism and which are essential for normal growth in children.
"It works best if given immediately before or immediately after a radio-iodine exposure," said Dr. Michael Shannon, a pediatrician and toxicologist at Children's Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School. He helped write the new policy.
One pill should protect a child for 24 hours, enough time for them to be evacuated from a disaster area or for the radioactive fallout to dissipate, Shannon said.
The pills are not effective against the type of radiation that most likely would be used in so-called dirty bombs, he said.
By Lindsey Tanner
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