EPA Facts about

What is Iodine? How are people exposed to iodine? Iodine is a found throughout the People can be exposed to all forms of iodine environment in a stable form, iodine-127, and as through the chain. However, current unstable radioactive of iodine. These environmental levels of radioactive iodine are radioactive forms include iodine-129 and iodine- low. In addition fish, bread, , and iodized 131. Iodine-129 is produced naturally in the contain stable iodine. upper atmosphere. Iodine-129 and iodine-131 Large quantities of radioactive iodine-131 have are also produced in nuclear explosions. In been released into the environment by nuclear addition, iodine-129 is released at very low weapons testing and the Chernobyl and levels into the environment from facilities that Fukushima nuclear power plant accidents; separate and reprocess fuels and however, the current level of iodine 131 in the from waste storage facilities. environment is very low. The reason is that iodine-131 has a very short half life. Iodine-129 is naturally occurring in the environment, and it What are the uses of iodine? has also been produced by nuclear weapons Stable iodine-127 is used as a dietary testing. The amount of iodine-129 produced by supplement for deficiencies. In addition, nuclear weapons testing is less than the iodine-131, iodine-125, and iodine-123 are used inventory of naturally occurring iodine-129. for imaging, and iodine-131 is used for therapy Iodine-129 is found in radioactive wastes from for treatment of various thyroid conditions. defense-related government facilities and facilities. How does iodine change in the environment? How does iodine get into the body? Iodine-129 and 131 are two of the more Iodine is soluble in water, which allows it to common radioactive forms of iodine. Both move easily from the atmosphere into living iodine-129 and iodine-131 release radiation organisms. For this reason, iodine can be during the decay process by emitting a beta concentrated in marine organisms. Iodine can particle and gamma radiation. The time required also be concentrated in grass, where it then can for a radioactive substance to lose 50 percent of be ingested by cows and incorporated into their its radioactivity by decay is known as the half- milk. Iodine can be found on leafy vegetables life. The half life of iodine-131 is relatively short, and then consumed directly by humans. Once at 8 days, while the half life of iodine-129 is iodine is ingested into the human body, a much longer, at more than 15 million years. portion of it is concentrated in the thyroid gland - 1 - and the rest is excreted. The most probable radioactive material, there is an incremental means of exposure to radioactive iodine is from chance that a cancer can result from that a patient who has been recently administered incremental exposure to radioactive materials. radioactive iodine for imaging or therapeutic What recommendations has the U.S. purposes. Environmental Protection Agency made The uptake of radioactive iodine by the thyroid to protect human health? is inversely related to the intake of stable iodine. For this reason, protection from radioactive Please note that the information in this section iodine after an emergency release is is limited to recommendations EPA has made to accomplished by ingesting large doses of stable protect human health from exposure to iodine- iodine. It should be noted that large doses of 131. General recommendations EPA has made stable iodine can be a health and should to protect human health at Superfund sites (the -4 -6 not be taken except in an emergency and when 10 to 10 cancer risk range), which cover all directed by the appropriate emergency including iodine-131, are response officials. summarized in the fact sheet “Primer on Radionuclides Commonly Found at Superfund Is there a medical test to determine Sites.” exposure to iodine? EPA has established a Maximum Contaminant Since iodine is concentrated in the thyroid gland, Level (MCL) of 4 millirems per year for beta radioassay of the thyroid is used to determine particle and photon radioactivity from man- the exposure level from iodine. Whole body made radionuclides in drinking water. The counts that measure iodine gamma radiation average concentration of iodine-131, which is can also be used to measure iodine in the body. assumed to yield 4 millirems per year, is 3 How can iodine affect people’s health? picoCuries per liter (pCi/L). If other radionuclides that emit beta particles and photon radioactivity The predominant health concern for radioactive are present in addition to iodine-131, the sum of iodine is in the thyroid gland, where it may the annual dose from all the radionuclides induce nodules or . This health cannot exceed 4 millirems/year. effect is of particular concern for children and pregnant women. High doses of iodine are used to treat thyroid cancer. Lower doses of radioactive iodine will result in reducing the For more information about how EPA addresses activity of the thyroid gland, which in turn will iodine at Superfund sites result in lower hormone production in the gland. Contact Stuart Walker of EPA: There is a fine balance when treating thyroid (703) 603-8748 or [email protected], problems with radioactive iodine. These or visit EPA’s Superfund Radiation Webpage: treatments are administered only when the http://www.epa.gov/superfund/resources/radiation benefits outweigh the risks. As with any

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