Why doesn’t everyone have KI pills?

On Jan. 12, when we all got the emergency alert about the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, my mind when straight to my KI pills (Potassium Iodide tablets).

I’d ordered them on a whim a few years back after reading an article in the Star. KI pills are supposed to help protect people in the event of radioactive gas leaks and are supplied free of charge to anyone within 50 km of a nuclear power plant (a catchment area that, in Ontario stretches roughly from Cobourg in the east to the IKEA on the Queensway in Etobicoke and, to the north, includes Lake Scugog, Richmond Hill, Markham and all of North York).

Unlike most things in my house, I know exactly where the pills are. I run across them whenever I pull things out of my special booze stash—a secret cabinet with rare and precious things meant to be enjoyed on special occasions. Why there? Because, if I ever have occasion to take them, I’ll also be wanting some of that 25-year-old scotch.

Unlike whisky though, medication goes bad. I got my KI pills almost exactly four years ago. Are they still good? And when should I take them? At the first sign of an alarm? Do they have side effects? Are they a magic bullet for all radioactive emissions? Are they safe for children? Do they need a smaller dose?

After six-plus hours being shunted between a half-dozen government agencies (some more than once) at municipal, provincial and federal levels—all of which said it wasn’t their department—I finally did get my answers. I was never granted a phone interview, but, after several email exchanges, I did get typed responses to the majority of my questions from the Ontario Ministry of Health.

The expiry date is on the package (mine are good until 2027) and side effects are generally rare and mild. KI pills are really just salt that fills up your thyroid so that no radiation can get in. You’re supposed to take the pills before you’re exposed to radioactive gas. And there are, indeed, different doses for people of different ages, all of which can be found online by reading a document prepared by the Emergency Management Branch.

And, no, they’re not a magic bullet. They only protect you from thyroid cancer. That’s really important though. If people in the vicinity of the Chernobyl disaster had taken KI pills, they might have prevented an estimated 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer.

“The potassium iodide is attracted to your thyroid, so when you swallow it, you saturate your thyroid and, if you breathe in radioactive iodine gas later, you’re able to just exhale it,” explains Shawn-Patrick Stensil, program director at Greenpeace Canada. “It only addresses one aspect of what we might be exposed to in the event of an emergency but it’s important because that’s something tangible that people can do.”

According to the Durham Region Health Department, in the three days after our delightful Sunday morning wake-up text, over 43,000 people have put in an order. By comparison, prior to that, 112 people had ordered KI pills over the first 11 days of the new year. And, although the false alarm was unfortunate and stressful, getting KI pills into people’s homes is a good thing.

“Unfortunately, we live in a nuclear city,” says Stensil, “There are 10 operating nuclear reactors in the GTA (six at Pickering and four at Darlington) and, so long as that’s the case, the public should be aware of it and ready for an emergency. I think the KI pill should be in everyone’s home emergency kit, just like you have bottled water and just like you have candles.”

Anyone within a 50 km radius of the Pickering plant can order pills from Ontario Power Generation at preparetobesafe.ca. So why doesn’t everybody have them? It all comes down to public awareness, which falls off the farther away people are from the plants.

“It would be really nice if, every year, our Chief Medical Officer of Health could issue a press release encouraging people to order these pills,” says Stensil. “They could do advertising in downtown Toronto, Mississauga and Markham, just like they do in Durham region. It shouldn’t end at the Scarborough border which is what it does right now.”

Stensil says there are a lot of problems with our current state of preparedness that go way beyond false alarms and a byzantine maze of people who may or may not be responsible for communications about things like KI pills. Given that I couldn’t even find out who was in charge of what for the first six hours, I’m not exactly surprised.

“Theoretically, if a real accident happened, they would send out an advisory telling people to take the pills,” he explains. “But the pills are stockpiled in a provincial pharmacy and they’d have to somehow distribute them to people and get people to take them within tight timelines. It boggles the mind, but this is the assertion of how they would do it.”

Although nuclear accidents aren’t predictable, the actual emissions of radioactive gasses (theoretically, again) would be—although Stensil says that hasn’t always been the case in real life. So, if Sunday hadn’t been a false alarm, how quickly would emergency response teams have been able to get pills into Toronto residents’ hands? Don’t forget, the pills need to be taken before exposure. And, after 24 hours, they’re pointless.

Of course, another alternative would be to address the source of the problem and get rid of some (or all) of the 10 GTA reactors.

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“First of all, we should just shut Pickering down,” says Stensil, “We wouldn’t build Pickering today if a proposal was submitted to build a new nuclear station in Canada’s biggest city. It wouldn’t be permitted. So, it’s time to close this plant.”

As we recently learned though, the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station’s life was recently extended past its 2024 best before date by Doug Ford’s government, despite safety concerns that stem from its location, size and age (Pickering turns 50 next year). On top of that, Ford recently cancelled a number of clean energy projects.

None of this is happy news, obviously. Having a pack of RadBlock that’s good until 2027 doesn’t take the edge off. And, neither does the 25-year-old scotch.

But if the next alert isn’t a false one, you’ll know where to find me.

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