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

Wired, EMILY MULLIN, OCT 17, 2022

East European governments are starting to distribute the tablets as a precaution, but there are limits to the protection they offer, and who might need them…………………………..

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 pills can and cannot do. First, the pills, which contain potassium iodide, aren’t an antidote for all forms of radiation exposure. Also, they’re only able to protect the thyroid—the small, butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the base of the neck.

Nuclear weapons and power plants rely on a process called fission, or the splitting of atoms into fragments, to generate a large amount of energy. 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. This gland is good at soaking up iodine, because natural iodine is needed to produce essential hormones. But exposure to the radioactive version damages the delicate organ and raises the risk of thyroid cancer.

Children are the most at risk. Following the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986, there was a marked increase in thyroid cancer cases in children and adolescents in the years following the disaster. (A study 35 years later found that radiation-related gene mutations did not, however, get passed to the future children of those who had been exposed.) 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 pills 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.”

While the pills can be very effective at preventing thyroid damage, they don’t protect any other part of the body—and they’re not effective against other radiation hazards, including electromagnetic rays and fallout particles that penetrate the body. “It’s not a silver bullet,” Geist says. “If you’re downwind of a surface burst of a nuclear weapon, the pills are only going to make you marginally safer than you otherwise would be.”

The tablets also shouldn’t be overused, or used too early. Health officials say they should not be taken until instructed by authorities, because the effectiveness of potassium iodide depends on the time frame in which the pills are taken, how much radioactive iodine gets into the body, and how quickly the body absorbs it. One dose typically provides protection for about 24 hours. To be most effective, the pills must be taken within 24 hours before, or four hours after, radiation exposure. “It’s a fairly narrow time window,” says Pat Zanzonico, a medical physicist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Zanzonico says potassium iodide is very safe to ingest over a period of several days, but excessive amounts over a prolonged period of time can adversely affect the function of the thyroid. And because the thyroid can only hold so much iodine at once, there’s no benefit to taking a larger dose than recommended.

Outside of Eastern Europe, Zanzonico says people probably won’t need potassium iodide pills in the highly unlikely event of a Russian nuclear attack in Ukraine—or if there is a disaster at Zaporizhzhia……….


October 18, 2022 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, health

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