Fukushima Gives Third of West Coast Babies Thyroid Problems? Not Even Close.
You may have seen reports that one-third of babies born along the West Coast have thyroid problems related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. That is so, so wrong.
The stories come from the misinterpretation of a new study from the nonprofit group Radiation and Public Health Project. Even worst case, the researchers found that nowhere near one-third of the newborns were hit with thyroid problems. Not even close.
According to the study, published in the Open Journal of Pediatrics, a total of 327 cases of congenital hypothyroidism at birth were documented in the “5 exposed states” between March 17 and December 30, 2011. The authors assume fetuses were exposed to increased radioactive iodine during this time since they found evidence that it was increased in the air from March 17 through April 30.
They compare births in this period to births in the same period in 2010, when there were 281 documented cases of thyroid problems. So 2011 had a 16 percent increase. Perhaps the one-third claim comes from the March 17 to June 30 period, when there were 122 cases in 2011 compared to 95 cases in 2010. That's a 28 percent increase.
Drawing a Conclusion
I'm not sure how many live births there were in the five-state area during this time, but there were over 500,000 in California in 2011. So, let's very conservatively assume there were 400,000 births during April 17 through December 30 in the five-state area. That means 0.08 percent (8 cases for every 10,000) of newborns have been hit with thyroid problems.
Even if all these increased cases of thyroid problems were directly related to Fukushima, that would be one extra baby per every 10,000 births who have hypothyroidism Or, put another way, at the most, 40 babies out of 400,000 may have been born with thyroid problems because of Fukushima.
Another thing to consider (and the authors allude to this) is this is an observational, cross-section study. It finds an increase in thyroid problems and an increase in radiation during a certain period of time and assumes one caused the other.
Although sometimes this kind of assumption turns out right, it doesn’t always. There have been all sorts of these types of studies associating increased coffee consumption with some disease, for example. When further, more sophisticated studies have been done, these original assumptions about disease have been proven wrong.
Other possibilities that could have accounted for an increase are that people of some races have a higher incidence of babies born with thyroid troubles than people of other races. Perhaps there was a higher percentage of those races born in 2011 compared to 2010.
Another possibility is that newer tests are more sensitive to diagnosing very slight hypothyroidism. Perhaps some of the increase was due to this.
Probably some of the mothers of the babies born during this time didn’t even live in the five-state area during pregnancy. And there are always all sorts of reasons we never even think of.
Will Taking Potassium Iodide Help Pregnant Women Protect Their Babies?
It is a known fact that pregnant women need more iodine, which is supplied in most prenatal vitamins. However, protecting your baby's thyroid against radiation requires much more. The more you take the more risk there is for potential side effects. Remember that any supplement, no matter how natural, should be considered a medicine. Before starting one, ask your doctor if it's safe.
Further Reading About Potassium Iodide and Radiation
Living Ready recommends these resources for learning more about radiation and potassium iodide. This supplement is often cited in the preparedness community as building protection from radiation. Some claims about its use are overblown.
FAQs About Potassium Iodide from the Food and Drug Administration
Health Risks of Taking Potassium Iodide
More Potassium Iodide FAQs from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
How to Make Potassium Iodide in an Emergency, from the FDA