An iodine tablet: what is the use in the event of a nuclear catastrophe?

With nuclear attack threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin and fighting near nuclear power plants in Ukraine, pharmacies in many countries, including France, are facing a growing demand for iodine tablets. But trying to get iodine is useless at best and dangerous at worst.

Iodine, how does it work?

During a nuclear accident, a plant can release radioactive iodine. If contaminated food is inhaled or eaten, it can enter the body and accumulate in the thyroid gland. This organ, located in the front of the neck, produces hormones necessary for the functioning of the body. If radioactive iodine absorption occurs, there is a significant risk of thyroid cancer. In the event of a nuclear accident, the authorities may recommend taking stable, i.e. non-radioactive, iodine to saturate the thyroid gland and protect it from radiation.

Why it makes no sense to take it in advance

Stable iodine only works against radioactive iodine. Many other radioactive substances, such as caesium 134 or caesium 137, can be released and iodine does not protect us from them. No need to take iodine beforehand. “Efficiency is optimal if trapping is carried out two hours before the start of the release of radioactive iodine; is 50% if the catch is carried out six hours after the start of the release. Therefore, tablets should be taken immediately after the prefect instructs, and only after that.“, explains the Office of Nuclear Safety (ASN). On the contrary, taking iodine without instructions exposes you to health risks: the pills can cause many side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, upset stomach or heart palpitations. In rare cases, you may experience hypothyroidism with palpitations, tremors and insomnia.The recommendation to take asylum remains parallel to the most effective solution and takes precedence over iodine..”

Iodine in case of a nuclear attack

In the event of a nuclear attack, taking iodine provides no real protection. “The danger comes from somewhere else: a huge explosion and high temperatures, which have a deadly effect.“, – explains the representative of the Office of Nuclear Safety. Science and the future. In addition, iodine is only one of the thousands of existing radionuclides. “There is not even a certainty that a military nuclear attack is associated with radioactive iodine.“In case of survival after a nuclear attack, the first step is to find shelter underground to avoid exposure.

Iodine in the event of a nuclear incident

A nuclear incident at a power plant is different from a military nuclear attack. Takingiodine stables and shelters are means of protection against radioactive releases. But iodine is not issued to pharmacy customers upon request. In France, since 1997, the government has organized the distribution of iodine tablets to the population living around the respective nuclear installations within a radius of 20 kilometers. Tablets are distributed for preventive purposes at facilities that pose a risk of radioactive iodine emissions: nuclear power plants, research reactors and some defense facilities.

People living no closer than 20 kilometers from the nuclear power plant are issued only in case of emergency. “The state is made up of departmental reserves, which are managed by the prefects. They are responsible for the delivery of tablets to mass distribution points.“, – recalls the representative of the Office of Nuclear Safety in Science and the future. In the event of a radioactive release from a power plant, the authorities can monitor the spread of the cloud and ensure that the population can take the dose of iodine necessary for self-defense in time. “However, taking stable iodine protects the thyroid gland only under certain conditions and for a certain organ.“, indicates ASN. It does not protect other radioactive elements such as cesium-134 or cesium-137.

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