Since the latest blasts radiating from Japan's nuclear reactor plant, there has been an atmosphere of rising fear across the globe as people ponder the thought of radiation poisoning. Even though WHO says the health risks are relatively low, worries about possible serious health issues have taken root and won't be ignored, especially as more and more radioactive iodine (radioiodine) is set free into the atmosphere.The problem with radioiodine.
Once in the atmosphere, radioiodine can hang around for a month or more. When humans ingest or inhale it, the compound concentrates in the thyroid. Even extremely small amounts can emit a large dose of radiation aimed at thyroid cells. When this happens, there may be some loss of thyroid function or nodes will form. In some cases, thyroid cancer
is the result.
Young children are most likely to suffer from the effects
. Years after the Chernobyl disaster, most cases of diagnosed thyroid cancer where in individuals that were around five years old when the Chernobyl explosion occurred. Dr. Virginia LiVolsa of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center has studied thyroid cancer patients from the countries affected by the blast. “The group at maximum risk is those exposed to high radiation levels when they were younger than five years,” Dr. LiVolsa stated. More than 40 percent of thyroid cancer patients were children four years old or younger when the tragedy occurred. During these young formative years the thyroid is most susceptible to the effects of radiation.Iodine pills to combat radiation.
In the wake of the leakage from the nuclear reactor in Japan, iodine pills have been flying off drug store shelves, especially in Japan and neighboring areas such as Korea and Hawaii, in hopes of preventing the effects of radiation exposure. How can iodine pills offer this type of protection?
Iodine pills contain a salt of non-radioactive iodine called potassium iodide
. This iodine is essential for the formation of thyroid hormones in the body and you usually get sufficient iodine through your diet.
In the case of radiation leakage, the radioactive form of iodine contaminates the atmosphere as well as crops. Once the radiation is inhaled or consumed, internal contamination causes the thyroid gland to absorb the radioactive chemical. However, if the thyroid is already “full” of stable, non-radioactive iodine then radioactive iodine can't be absorbed. Taking iodine pills is one way to fill the thyroid up with stable iodine.
Protection isn't 100% guaranteed, however, and the iodine pills can't reverse any damage already present. Timing is crucial and the ideal scenario is to take the pills before radiation exposure occurs.
The lessons of Chernobyl weren't lost on the Japanese government. While experts tell us the radiation leak won't come close to the scale of Chernobyl, protecting the citizens from its effects, specifically thyroid cancer, is paramount. Thankfully, iodide pills were stockpiled and distributed to Japanese citizens.
But as with most things, time will tell if it was too little, too late.