The Chernobyl miniseries recently premiered on HBO, giving many an up-close look at what happened when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic nuclear accident in 1986. With its release, this miniseries has many viewers asking questions about how one might survive such an event if it were to happen again or at the very least, lessen the damage done.
During the Chernobyl disaster, radioactive iodine, a major product of uranium fission, was released into the atmosphere. The radioactive iodine also contaminated local food and water supply.
When radioactive iodine is released into the air after a nuclear accident, it is inhaled by humans or ingested through food and water. The thyroid gland absorbs it very quickly and it causes severe damage to the thyroid, leading to health issues, including cancer.
Absorption of radioactive iodine was a major cause of health problems for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster.
What are iodine pills?
Iodine pills consist of potassium iodide (KI). Potassium iodide contains non-radioactive or stable form of iodine. Stable iodine can be used to block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid gland.
The pharmaceutical form of potassium iodide is provided in tablet or liquid form.
The body needs a steady supply of stable iodine to make thyroid gland hormones, sustain normal thyroid gland function and preserve health. This explains why the salt we use for cooking and preparing food is usually iodized.
How iodine pills protect the body after a nuclear event
The human body is unable to distinguish between toxic radioactive iodine and the stable or non-radioactive form. So, following a nuclear accident in which radioactive iodine is released into the air, food and water supplies, it competes with stable iodine for absorption into the body.
Thus, after nuclear radiation, people are advised to take a recommended amount of potassium iodide to prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine. When you take an adequate amount of potassium iodide tablets, the thyroid gland absorbs the stable iodine until it becomes saturated or full and is unable to absorb any more stable or radioactive iodine.
Iodine pills are best taken before radiation exposure
To maximize the thyroid protective function of iodine pills, they have to be taken before the thyroid has absorbed enough radioactive iodine to cause damage to the body.
It is important that people who live in areas close to nuclear installations and people at a high risk of exposure to radiation keep iodine pills in their private dispensaries because its effectiveness depends on how much time elapses between initial expose to radioactive iodine and the ingestion of the pills.
Iodine pills are most effective when taken before exposure.
Limitations of the protective function of iodine pills
However, a limitation of the protective function of potassium iodine tablets is that it can only prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine, it cannot protect the rest of the body from absorbing it. However, because the thyroid is the major target organ for iodine, protecting the thyroid with potassium iodide helps to protect the health of victims in a nuclear event.
Damage to the thyroid and thyroid cancer are among the major effects of radiation exposure following a nuclear accident.
Although people whose diets are low in iodine are the most vulnerable, people whose diets contain enough iodine are also vulnerable because the normal diet does not contain enough iodine to block radioactive iodine from being absorbed.
Iodized salt also does not contain enough iodine to protect the thyroid, so it is not recommended as a substitute for iodine pills.
People who are most vulnerable to thyroid gland damage when a nuclear event occurs are fetuses, infants and young children under 18 years old. Adults over 40 years are the least vulnerable.
Adverse effects of taken iodine pills
Older people over 40 years are more likely to suffer an adverse reaction to potassium iodide tablets.
The risk of adverse or allergic reactions as well as gastrointestinal irritation, thyroid problems, rashes and inflammation of the salivary glands are reasons why no one should take more than the recommended dose of potassium iodide and to only use this supplement in the case of exposure or high risk of exposure to radiation.
In the event of a nuclear accident, public health authorizes will issue an alert and advise people to take iodine pills and adopt other precautionary measures, including avoiding certain types of foods.
How much iodine do you need to take?
A single dose of 130 milligrams of iodine is usually sufficient to protect adults and children weighing more than 150 pound for 24 hours.
Children aged 3-18 need only 65 milligrams.