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HomeNewsHow Iodine Pills Can—and Can’t—Help Against Radiation

How Iodine Pills Can—and Can’t—Help Against Radiation

It is a source of unease Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling grows, along with concerns about the safety of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, officials in Kyiv are distributing iodine tablets to help protect residents against potential radiation exposure. Poland is neighboring and the government has also begun to make free iodine tablets available. Likewise, in Finland, pharmacies are running out of the tablets after the country’s health ministry advised households to buy them in case of an emergency.

These precautionary measures can be dangerous, however they are also necessary to keep people safe. Google searches for “potassium iodide”—a naturally occurring type of iodine that can counteract some effects of radiation—spiked at the end of February shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are trending upward again. The war has also sparked panic buying of the tablets in several European countries, including Belgium, France, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, although intelligence experts have been at pains to point out—despite US president Joe Biden’s alarmist remarks—that there are no signs that Russia is planning to use nuclear weapons. The situation in Zaporizhzhia, despite being precarious due to recent power outages and backup power restored as of October 14th, is still stable.

Just because you can go online and stock up on iodine tablets, doesn’t mean you should. And in countries where they are being distributed as a precaution, it’s also important to understand what the tablets can and cannot do. The tablets, which are potassium iodide and don’t protect against all radiation, have two main points. Also, they’re only able to protect the thyroid—the small, butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the base of the neck.

For large quantities of energy to be generated, both nuclear weapons or power plants depend on fission. It is the breaking down of atoms into small pieces. During a nuclear strike or plant meltdown, one of the radioactive substances that’s released is iodine-131, a dark purple gas that can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Once it enters the body, it’s absorbed by the thyroid. Because essential hormones require natural iodine to make, this gland can absorb it well. However, thyroid cancer can be caused by exposure to radioactive iodine.

The most vulnerable are children. In the following years, thyroid cancer rates in adolescents and children rose sharply after 1986’s nuclear accident at Chernobyl. However, a study conducted 35 years after the disaster showed that future radiation-related genetic mutations didn’t pass on to their children. The risk is much lower in people 40 and older, and the World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention generally don’t recommend potassium iodide for that age group unless the projected radiation dose is very high.

Iodine tablets block the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine by filling it with the regular kind—the gland can only absorb so much at once, and it can’t tell the difference between the two types. “The human thyroid has a finite capacity for iodine. If you overload it with iodine from other sources, it’ll basically be full,” says Edward Geist, a policy researcher on nuclear energy and warfare at the RAND Corporation, a Washington, DC-based think tank. “That means when you encounter this radioactive iodine, you’re much less likely to absorb it in your thyroid and you get a much lower dose from having this iodine in you.”

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