Worried About Radiation Exposure? Watch Out for Fake Treatments

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning American consumers about counterfeit medications claiming to protect against radiation exposure.

For those directly exposed to excessive amounts of radioactive iodine, the only treatment is potassium iodide (KI), a form of iodine that mimics the radioactive element that is one of the most common contaminants from nuclear power plants. Most of any ingested iodine is sequestered in the thyroid gland, so the potassium iodide, which comes in pill form, preferentially targets the thyroid and blocks any radioactive forms of iodine from binding to the tissue.

According to health experts, KI has no effect in reducing harm from radioactive materials in any other part of the body, nor does it protect against harm from other radioactive isotopes, such as cesium, which is also being released from the damaged Fukushima plant in Japan. That’s why it makes sense only for those at risk of exposure or who have been contaminated to take the pills. However, the FDA notes on its website that:

Despite the fact that there is no public health event in the U.S. requiring KI, FDA is aware of an increased demand for KI products.

Which was probably inevitable, once the ominous news about Japan’s unstable Fukushima nuclear reactors started to dominate the headlines. People not only miles away from the plants in Japan, but those separated from the unfolding crisis by continents and oceans are now worried about exposure to radioactive material.

So the FDA is warning consumers first that there is no need for anyone in the U.S. to be taking potassium iodide because of the situation in Japan, and second, that despite this low risk, counterfeit drug makers are preying on the public’s fears and infusing the market with fake KI pills. An FDA spokesperson told CNN: “We’re alerting consumers to be wary of products that falsely claim to prevent radiation and protect consumers, or are not FDA-approved.”

The FDA has approved only three KI products, listed on its website: iosat tablets (made by Anbex), ThyroSafe tablets (made by Recipharm AB) and ThyroShield solution (from Fleming & Company Pharmaceuticals). These products can only protect against harm from radioactive iodine. For other exposure, the agency has approved products that can help the body eliminate radioactive elements more quickly, such as calcium-CTPA and zinc DTPA or Prussian blue capsules.

The FDA does not recommend that consumers proactively stockpile potassium iodine, since at the moment there is no evidence that anyone in the U.S. is at risk of radiation exposure from Fukushima. Nor should anyone who hasn’t been exposed be taking the pills, since they come with side effects, from aggravating existing thyroid conditions to skin lesions. According to the agency’s website on radiation safety, “There is no public health event requiring anyone in the U.S. to take KI because of the ongoing situation in Japan.”

In addition, agency officials suggest that consumers be alert to websites or marketing claims for radiation protection products. Here’s what the agency says to look out for:

  • claims that a product not approved by FDA can prevent or treat the harmful effects of radiation exposure;
  • suggestions that a potassium iodide product will treat conditions other than those for which it is approved, i.e., KI floods the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine and prevents the uptake of the radioactive molecules, which are subsequently excreted in the urine;
  • promotions using words such as “scientific breakthrough,” “new products,” “miraculous cure,” “secret ingredient” and “ancient remedy;”
  • testimonials by consumers or doctors claiming amazing results;
  • limited availability and advance payment requirements;
  • promises of no-risk, money-back guarantees;
  • promises of an “easy” fix; and,
  • claims that the product is “natural” or has fewer side effects than approved drugs.