Why Did Chernobyl Victims Take Iodine Pills And Should I Take Them?

Photo: Courtesy of Liam Daniel/HBO.
Let’s be clear: Chernobyl is not for viewers with sensitive stomachs. A man throws up on a table. Some characters end up looking like scabby, gory, unwrapped mummies. Power plant workers are seriously burned, and they bleed all over their crisp, white uniforms. This is the aftermath, as dramatized by the new HBO miniseries, of an actual nuclear reactor explosion at a power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine (a Republic of the former Soviet Union at the time) in 1986. The materials that were released into the atmosphere at the time, both in real life and on screen, caused death, illness, and environmental issues.
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In episode two of the dramatized series about the disaster, a nuclear physicist named Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) confronts an official shortly after the explosion. “I know about Chernobyl,” she says. “If you don’t immediately issue iodine tablets and evacuate this city, hundreds of thousands of people are going to get cancer and God knows how many more will die.”
It sounds dramatic, but Khomyuk wasn’t so far off base. Radioactive iodine emissions were released into the air after Chernobyl, according to the World Health Organization, and a way to stem the potential health implications was to give people more iodine. This might sound counterintuitive, but there are different types of iodine, and one of the best ways to protect people from the harmful chemical compound that was circulating at the time was to give them more of it.
How Did Radioactive Iodine Affect Chernobyl Victims?
Dr Jonathan Cobb, senior communications manager at the World Nuclear Association, tells Refinery29 in an email that the emissions of radioactive iodine from the Chernobyl accident may have lead to thousands of cases of thyroid cancer.
“Since the accident, it’s suspected that approximately a quarter of the some 20,000 cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed were caused by the radioactive iodine released from Chernobyl,” he said. “Fortunately, thyroid cancer is treatable, and there are thought to have been just 15 deaths out of all the cases of thyroid cancer attributable to Chernobyl.”
Cobb claims that many of these cases might not have happened if the authorities had alerted the local population to the accident sooner. The rural communities around Chernobyl drank milk from their own cows. After Chernobyl, radioactive iodine floated through the air, landing on the grass, which was eaten by cows, and the iodine transferred into that milk. The people drinking that milk ended up with radioactive iodine concentrated in their thyroids, Cobb explains.
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So Where Do The Iodine Pills Come In?
Chernobyl, the miniseries, insinuates that if people in the areas surrounding the catastrophic explosion had kept a supply of potassium iodide tablets on hand and taken them as soon as the disaster occurred, those tablets would have blocked radioactive iodine from flooding the thyroids of people in proximity to the accident. Farrow agrees. She explains that this is because the thyroid cannot distinguish between "good" iodine and radioactive iodine.
And there’s another factor that had to do with the times: “The people around Chernobyl ate iodine deficient diets so the physical damage was worse than the average place,” Farrow notes.
How Iodine Affects The Body
“Iodine is an element that comes in many forms,” Farrow notes. “Iodine is essential for your thyroid because that is a key regulator organ producing hormones for your metabolism, as well as supporting the other organs.”
So, we consume iodine for nutrition, but there’s another form of it out there, which is a radioactive isotope associated with weapons and nuclear disasters, like Chernobyl.
Farrow continues that when the thyroid doesn’t receive enough nourishment, it can cause hypothyroidism, during which your thyroid “slows down and goes into a kind of hibernation, often causing people to complain of coldness, fatigue and weight gain.”
Iodine deficiency can also lead to a condition called Goiter, which is an enlargement of the thyroid, and possibly to intellectual disabilities in infants and children whose mothers were iodine deficient during pregnancy the ATA notes.
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So, despite the fact that you can consume iodine through foods too, you might want to ask your doctor at your next appointment if you should be taking a supplement.
The ATA notes that the body does not make iodine, so it’s important to make it a part of your diet.
So, while the Chernobyl miniseries depicted iodine as a pill to take in dyer emergencies, the supplement can be relevant and helpful in your everyday life too. “You would have to eat boxes of salt and pounds of fish every day to get the amount of iodine you can get in a tablet,” Farrow says. She notes that most people don’t get enough iodine. Iodine is also found in seaweed, cheese, yogurt, and (yay) ice cream, according to the American Thyroid Association. The ATA notes that the body does not make iodine, so it’s important to make it a part of your diet.
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