Radiation: does iodine help? | Science | In-depth science and technology reporting | DW

Radiation: does iodine help?  |  Science |  In-depth science and technology reporting |  DW

When there is an accident in a nuclear power plant – if there is an explosion or a leak or if it is damaged in some way during the war – radioactive iodine is one of the first substances released into the atmosphere.

If this radioactive iodine enters the body, it can damage thyroid cells and cause cancer.

You can inhale radiation, or it can enter your body through your skin. But you can’t see it, smell it or taste it in the air. It’s an invisible threat.

Some of the worst effects of overexposure to radiation are thyroid cancer, tumors, acute leukemia, eye disease, and psychological or mental disorders. Radiation can even damage your genes for generations to come.

In the most extreme cases, a large dose of radiation over a short period of time will cause death within days or even hours.

Is it worth taking iodine for radiation?

Our body does not produce iodine itself. But we need it, so we consume iodine through food or supplements.

You can buy iodine in tablet form. When consumed, iodine is collected or stored in the thyroid gland, where it is used to produce hormones. They help various bodily functions and even support brain development.

The thyroid can however become saturated with iodine. And when that happens, it can no longer store.

So the theory is that if you take in enough “good” iodine, there will be no room in the thyroid for “bad” iodine or radioactive iodine. This radioactive iodine should then simply pass through the body and be excreted through the kidneys.

Our body does not produce iodine but we need it, so we must consume it through food, for example

But do not take iodine as a precaution

There is no point in taking iodine as a precaution to prevent radiation exposure after a nuclear power plant leak or attack.

The thyroid only stores iodine for a limited time.

And taking too much iodine – even the good stuff – can be dangerous.

Many people in Germany, for example, suffer from an overactive thyroid. And health experts advise against taking iodine supplements unless there is an acute medical reason to do so.

German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) says that iodine supplements can help after a nuclear power plant accident within a radius of up to 100 kilometers (62 miles).

But iodine is still effective only if it is taken when it is needed. Experts say an iodine “block” only has a chance of helping if the correct iodine is taken just before or during contact with radioactive iodine.

Cesium, strontium absorbed by the body

The radioactive isotopes iodine 131 and iodine 133 cause thyroid cancer. They are also the isotopes most associated with radiation exposure from a leak or explosion in a nuclear power plant.

The radioactive isotopes strontium 90 and cesium 137 are also part of the mixture. They settle in the bone tissue and also increase the risk of cancer.

Our body mistakes these isotopes for calcium. It can absorb them and use them in the physiological processes of our muscles and bones. If this happens, the bone marrow can spin out of control.

The bone marrow is responsible for the production of new blood cells. And if it fails, it can lead to a blood cancer called leukemia, which is often fatal.

Damage to genetic material

Radioactive exposure can also damage the body’s genetic material.

It is known to have happened after the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War II – children were born with birth defects after the war.

Long-term effects were also observed after an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in April 1986.

Twenty years after the disaster, cancer rates in most affected areas had increased by 40%. An estimated 25,000 people in Russia died for helping clean up the reactor site.

Almost no treatment for radiation exposure

There is virtually no treatment for radiation exposure. What is decisive is whether a person has been “contaminated” or whether the radiation has been “incorporated” into the body.

In the case of contamination, radioactive waste is deposited on the surface of the body.

It may sound ridiculous, but the first thing people should do in these cases is to wash off the radioactive waste with normal soap and water.

A “radioactive intake” is much more dangerous. Once radioactive waste has entered the body, it is almost impossible to eliminate it again.

Intensity and time

Radioactivity is measured in millisieverts.

An exposure of 250 millisieverts (or 0.25 sieverts), over a short period of time, is enough to cause radiation sickness.

To put this into context, the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) tends to measure an average of 2.1 millisieverts in the environment. It’s for an entire year.

At a measurement of 4,000 millisieverts (or 4 sieverts), acute radiation sickness begins quickly. The risk of death increases dramatically. At 6 sievert, the risk of death is 100% — there is no chance of survival. Death is almost immediate.

Edited by: Alexandre Freund