Medical Q&As

Nuclear fallout - iodine tablets?

Now that the government is distributing iodine tablets would you give a brief synopsis of the benefit or otherwise of this self-medication?

The Department of Health and Children is currently making arrangements to distribute iodine tablets to every household in the country. This is being done as part of the government’s plan entitled National Planning for Nuclear Emergencies. Many lessons have been learned in the aftermath of previous nuclear fallout incidents particularly the incident in Chernobyl. After that incident there was a significant increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer in the population of Belarus and this affected people up to 500 kilometres from the damaged nuclear reactor. The World Health Organisation has estimated that over 1,000 cases of thyroid cancer occurred after the single release of radioactivity into the atmosphere that occurred from the Chernobyl plant. Iodine tablets are being distributed here to prevent a similar tragedy in Ireland should a nuclear incident occur. Thyroid cells are the only cells in the body that can absorb iodine but the gland has a limited storage capacity. The gland uses iodine, which is contained in many foods, to manufacture thyroid hormones. The thyroid gland is extremely vulnerable to the effects of radiation. In the event of a radiation emergency radioactive iodine could be released into the atmosphere. This radioactive material could then be absorbed into the body through breathing the contaminated air or by swallowing it with food or drink. This could damage the thyroid gland and the damage might not become apparent for many years after the event. The iodine tablets protect the gland by filling it up with iodine thereby blocking the uptake of dangerous radioactive iodine. It is extremely important that people do not take their iodine tablets as soon as they receive them. The tablets should be kept in a safe place and should not be taken until advised to do so by public health officials. Iodine tablets are not a general panacea against the effects of nuclear fallout. They simply protect the thyroid gland. However, the importance of that step should not be underestimated since the thyroid gland is responsible for regulating the metabolism of every cell in the body.