Nuclear fallout and harvesting thyroid tissue

A curious reader asks:

Does your book address the possibility of a nuclear fallout situation?  I have Graves disease and very little functioning thyroid left.  How would nuclear fallout affect harvesting supplemental thyroid from exposed animals?

The self-study course, HYPOTHYROIDISM – ANSWERS FOR A POST-APOCALYPTIC WORLD, was written before the Japanese nuclear disaster.  I am working on an update, including more information relating to nuclear emergencies.

(Anyone ordering  Version 1 is eligible to download updated editions at no additional cost.)

Yes,  nuclear fallout of I-131 should affect your decision regarding harvesting animal thyroid tissue.

The short answer is, wait at least 60-100 days after a single exposure.  As the graph and table below show, radioactive isotopes disappear from the environment (or the body) in an exponential fashion.

Days after exposure Half-lives Per cent I-131


0 0 100
8 1 50
16 2 25
24 3 12.5
32 4 6
40 5 3
48 6 1.5
56 7 0.75
64 8 0.4
72 9 0.2
80 10 0.1

Eight days after a single exposure, 50% of I-131 has decayed to normal iodine. By about 80 days, the level is down to 1 thousandth as much.

I-131 concentrates in both human and animal thyroid tissue after environmental exposure.  Radioactive decay will occur whether it resides inside an animal or inside a bottle of medicine.  Thyroid tissue could be harvested and stored for later use, or simply harvested later.

If on-going exposure occurs, the time-line needs to be extended until after the final exposure.

Even a person without a thyroid will not die in two months from lack of the hormone (though they may begin to experience symptoms of hypothyroidism).  Stretching your current supply until the time period is up is one option to slow development of symptoms.

* * *

Header image shows: Per capita thyroid doses in the continental United States of Iodine-131 resulting from all exposure routes from all atmospheric nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site.

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About Cynthia J. Koelker, MD

CYNTHIA J KOELKER , MD is a board-certified family physician with over twenty years of clinical experience. A member of American Mensa, Dr. Koelker holds degrees in biology, humanities, medicine, and music from M.I.T., Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the University of Akron. She served in the National Health Service Corps to finance her medical education.
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