The world changed on 24 February 2022. Russia’s attack on Ukraine marked the largest war Europe has seen since World War II, triggering a series of ripples that rocked the entire planet, leaving many people wondering what their future will look like.
Among the many tragedies spurred by this invasion, the prospect of a nuclear war understandably scares many people. While the risk doesn’t seem particularly high, the risk of a large-scale war also didn’t seem that high a few months ago.
It’s also understandable that faced with such an extreme scenario, people would want to feel some level of control over the situation. But when you’re concerned about people starting a nuclear war hundreds or thousands of kilometers away, there’s little you can do to directly affect the situation. So instead, people focus on things closer to home — like Iodine. Just like people started hoarding masks, disinfectant, or even toilet paper, some have now taken to buying iodine.
It’s no secret that Russian troops have taken control of nuclear power plants, including Chernobyl. While the troops have now been forced out of that area, the memory of the 1986 catastrophe and the possibility of a nuclear war made people’s blood run cold.
After a nuclear accident, a large quantity of radionuclides (atoms with unstable cores) is released into the atmosphere — including one called Iodine-131. Like all radionuclides, this radioisotope of iodine contains excess nuclear energy, which makes it unstable. It’s also very mobile and can spread thousands of miles from the accident site — and its negative effects can be felt for 1-2 months.
Exposure to Iodine-131 could occur in two ways: externally, which causes burns to the skin and eyes. Internally, it can do even more damage, causing thyroid cancer. This makes Iodine-131 one of the most feared fission products released into the atmosphere by atomic bombs or accidents like Chernobyl. Furthermore, if released into the air, Iodine-131 may be inhaled or ingested through the consumption of food or liquids that have been exposed to radiation.
Although a nuclear accident can adversely affect the whole body, the thyroid is one of the organs most prone to cancer. This is because the thyroid uses iodine (obtained naturally from daily food) to synthesize thyroid hormones, but does not have the ability to distinguish between regular and radioactive iodine (I-131) — and can absorb the radioactive iodine.
Studies show that women are more prone to thyroid cancer than men. There are different types of thyroid cancer with papillary thyroid cancer being the most common, and it is most frequently diagnosed in people 30-50 years old. The extent of thyroid cancer depends on the level of exposure, age, health, and lifestyle, but it usually has a high survival rate. However, in the case of severe exposure to radioactive elements, the prognosis can be much worse.
Radiation symptoms may not be felt, but that does not mean that the body has not been exposed. To detect the level of radiation, people can do a medical screening, which includes ultrasound imaging and clinical examination. Another method consists of chromosomal analysis, using the PNA-FISH method: fluorescence in situ hybridization with peptide nucleic acid probes. The method detects abnormalities by coloring the centromeres and telomeres of chromosomes with this fluorescence.
If radioiodine is toxic and can lead to thyroid cancer, could normal iodine be the solution to the problem? Well, it’s a bit like fighting fire with fire — or rather, fighting the bad type of fire with the good type of fire.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the administration of stable iodine, such as potassium iodide (KI) in the event of a nuclear accident. As mentioned earlier, the thyroid does not distinguish between radioactive and stable iodine. If I-131 enters the body, the thyroid wants to use that iodine to secrete hormones. Taking KI pills before or immediately after the interaction with radiation ensures that the gland is saturated with the iodine it needs and won’t absorb the nuclear one. Iodine tablets should be taken less than 24 hours before exposure or no more than two hours after contact.
Iodine pills have their own risks and should not be taken in excess or whenever someone wants. For instance, if taken later than two hours after exposure to radiation, they would further endanger the body, as they will create a surplus in the thyroid that has already absorbed radioactive iodine. They can also cause side effects: hyper or hypothyroidism and allergic reactions.
Stopping nuclear wars
Should a real nuclear war start, however, iodine would only provide limited immediate protection. Without a shred of a doubt, we’d all be in for a world of trouble. In fact, if there’s any event that could wipe out human civilization rapidly, it’s likely a nuclear war.
In addition to god-knows-how-many lives lost, a nuclear war would mean drastic climate change and the devastation of agriculture. Explosions would release massive quantities of sooty smoke, changing the world climate and causing a dreaded nuclear winter. Nuclear conflict would inevitably lead to widespread famine, as crops would be contaminated with radiation.
We would not be entirely helpless. Granular activated carbon (GAC) and silver mordenite (AgM) could be used to stop the radiation from spreading. They are usually utilized to remove the radionuclide (like Iodine-131) from nuclear sites. Once they fully absorb radiation, GAC and AgM must be stabilized in a matrix of disposal, like a cementitious waste form.
But no matter what we do, a nuclear war would prove devastating to human civilization. So we’d be wise to make sure this never happens. Substantial effort is being put forth on this front.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted on 7 July 2017 and all the countries from the United Nations were urged to sign it. This treaty requires the signatory states to agree to cease the production, storage, and testing of nuclear weapons and explosives, as well as to cease threatening other states with a nuclear war. The act came into force last year, on 22 January 2021, with 86 countries signing it and 59 ratifying it.
However, no state that currently owns nuclear weapons has complied with the treaty. On the contrary, countries are refining their nuclear technology, with Russia and the United States owning 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. Russia is reportedly developing new types of weapons: nuclear-powered cruise missiles, hypersonic delivery vehicles atop ballistic missiles, and long-range nuclear torpedoes designed to explode in waters close to cities. With the Ukraine invasion not going according to plan, Russia will likely see its nuclear arsenal as a major deterrent to any military action against it and is unlikely to renounce its nuclear weapons anytime soon. With Russia doing this, other countries will also have an incentive to keep their nuclear weapons as well, and the prospect of nuclear war remains looming on the horizon.
Ultimately nuclear war is unlikely to start, but the very idea that it could happen is enough to have people worried. The war in Ukraine, and especially around Chernobyl, has led many people to seek iodine tablets. Taking stable iodine may help in some instances, but you shouldn’t take supplements without a doctor’s recommendation. Iodine, in particular, can negatively affect your health.
Daniela likes to test the limits of the “impossible”, never shying away from complexity and always ready for a new challenge. She enjoys writing articles, but she enjoys interviews even more because they allow her to gain more insights into various topics. She began her career writing articles on art but later fell in love with the world of science.