Iodine Tablets as Protection Against Thyroid Cancer – Good Idea or Not?

From October 27, 2014 to December 5, Switzerland is distributing iodine tablets to more than half the country’s population for use in the event of a nuclear disaster. (Bloomberg). People living with a 31-mile radius of a nuclear power plant will receive packages of 12 pills that will keep for 10 years. Officials note that most often, a single dose of iodine is enough. (National Post). Tablets will also be distributed to companies located less than 50 kilometers from a nuclear power plant.

There are two types of iodine: radioactive iodine, and non-radioactive iodine. (National Post). In the event of a major nuclear accident, radioactive iodine can be released into the air and inhaled. (National Post). It can also contaminate local food and the water supply. (National Post).The thyroid gland absorbs both stable and radioactive iodine and cannot determine the difference between the two. (National Post). Iodine tablets can protect the thyroid because when a person takes the iodine tablets, the thyroid becomes “full.” (National Post). Once the thyroid is full, it will be unable to absorb any more iodine for the next 24 hours. People will then be protected from absorbing radioactive iodine and the potential of thyroid cancer.

Why is the Swiss government doing this?

After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011, the Japanese government distributed iodine to people living near nuclear power plants. In fact, pharmacies around the world faced a rush on iodine pills and many pharmacies ran out of stock. (National Post). This is reminiscent of the increase in thyroid cancer after the Chernobyl disaster. In 2006, on the anniversary of Chernobyl, UNICEF stated that iodine could have saved many children from thyroid cancer. (UNICEF).

The fear of a nuclear disaster has caused the Swiss government to become skeptical of nuclear energy. (Bloomberg). According to the Swiss Federal Office for Energy, nuclear power plants produced 36 percent of Switzerland’s electricity last year. (Bloomberg). In May 2011, Switzerland announced plans to phase out atomic power by 2034 and the iodine pills are a protective measure until they are able to do so.

Supporters

Supporters of this move state that the tablets will protect infants and children under the age of 18, as they are the most vulnerable to harmful effects of radioactive iodine. In 2006, on the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl, a Regional Director of UNICEF, Maria Calivis stated that for about 4,000 children, iodized salt could have made all the difference in sparing children from thyroid cancer. (UNICEF).

With more research, it has been found that while iodized salt contains enough iodine to maintain a healthy thyroid, it does not contain enough to block radioactive iodine from being absorbed. (National Post). Therefore, iodine tablets will be most protective if there is a nuclear disaster. (National Post).

The Swiss are not alone in pre-distributing iodine tablets. According to a 2010 report by the European Commission, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are all pursuing similar actions to distribute iodine tablets. (European Report).

Critics

David Brenner, professor of radiation biophysics at Columbia University stated “There’s a concern that this will be seen as a universal panacea to protect you from all types of radiation exposure.” (Bloomberg). He did note however, that the tablets would best serve children, rather than adults.

The operators of Switzerland’s five nuclear power plants, who are paying for these tablets to be distributed, believe the move could be counter-productive. (Bloomberg). They say that people receiving these pills are becoming unsettled, and that the older system of keeping pills in central storage sites was more effective. (Bloomberg).

The nuclear expert at Greenpeace, Florian Kasser, states that iodine tablets do not do anything to help other risks, like cesium. (Bloomberg). He states that the best protection for the population is to shut down the reactors altogether. (Bloomberg).

Conclusion

The Swiss government has learned from Chernobyl and Fukushima and has taken a protective measure while they work to phase out atomic power. This is a commendable and proactive undertaking. However, there are both benefits and risks to iodine tablets, and people who take them should do their research and listen to the advice of public health or emergency management officials.

(The Center for Disease Control offers more information on stable iodine: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/ki.asp.)

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