People across Europe are stocking up on iodine tablets against the backdrop of fears that the Russian invasion of Ukraine may “go nuclear.”
Following antagonistic comments from President Vladimir Putin, people living in many former Eastern Bloc states, including Poland, Bulgaria, and Czechia, have been flocking to pharmacists to stock their cupboards with iodine tablets, Reuters reports. There have been similar reports of iodine selling out in pharmacies in Finland, which shares a border with Russia.
Panic buying has also hit the US with high demand for iodine tablets seeing packets selling on eBay for upwards of $149. But can iodine tablets really protect against radiation poisoning?
What is iodine?
Stable iodine comes in the form of the salt potassium iodide (KI). It’s an important chemical needed by the thyroid gland at the base of the neck to make hormones that control many functions like growth, metabolism, and development. The body doesn't naturally make iodine, so the only way to get this nutrient is through food and supplements.
Why should you take iodine after a nuclear accident?
Iodine can be a useful tool in the event of a nuclear incident, but it’s by no means a cure-all against radiation.
In the immediate aftermath of a nuclear attack or accident, radioactive iodine can be released into the air where it enters the body of anyone within the fallout zone.
Taking iodine just before or just after a nuclear incident will effectively fill the thyroid up with so much iodine it can not absorb any more, whether it’s radioactive or not. This blocks radioactive iodine from entering the gland and can help protect it from injury. One pill should be good for around 24 hours of some kind of protection.
One of the major risks of radiation exposure in the long term is thyroid cancer, especially for children. Following the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in 1986, a significant increase in thyroid cancer was reported among children exposed to radioactive iodine released at the time of the accident in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Similar reports are starting to emerge from Fukushima, the site of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident in March 2011.
Taking an appropriate dose of iodine at the time of radiation exposure can, at least in theory, help to reduce this risk.
Does iodine always protect against radiation?
Simply put: no. People shouldn’t take iodine as a regular preventive measure. Not only will it be largely pointless until the day a nuclear incident does occur, it can also cause a bunch of unpleasant side effects, including damage to the heart and kidneys. As such, iodine tablets should only be taken on the advice of health authorities.
Furthermore, iodine will not protect you from many of the nasty impacts of radiation exposure. First of all, iodine will only protect you from radioactive iodine, not other kinds of radioactive material. Secondly, it only provides protection for the thyroid gland, not other parts of your body.
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.