Prices and demand for iodine pills have been surging amid concerns over the war in Ukraine leading to a larger nuclear confrontation, but an expert on radiation sickness wants to put the risk from a nuclear blast into perspective.
First thing, even if there was a nuclear attack, the pills being purchased online or over-the-counter wouldn’t help.
“People are buying potassium iodide pills because there’s a misperception that potassium iodide pills protect against radiation injury, when in fact, they only protect the thyroid by reducing the risk of cancer several years later, after exposure,” said Lauren Jackson, an associate professor of radiation oncology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Jackson is an international expert and researcher on developing medical countermeasures against radiation sickness.
“Potassium iodide pills treat internal radiation exposure, not external radiation exposure, which is the predominant cause of acute radiation sickness in a nuclear incident,” she said.
An example of potassium iodide pills’ intended use would be for children who ingested milk from cows grazing in a contaminated field.
For those still worried about a nuclear attack, it might be some small comfort to know that radiation fallout decays very rapidly.
In the event of radiation emergencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to get inside, stay inside and stay tuned for instructions and updates.
“In a radiological or nuclear incident, the vast majority of lives could be saved; people will have 15 to 20 minutes of notice to seek shelter, typically before the fallout would arrive,” Jackson said.
Most people can avoid being exposed to external radiation if they immediately seek shelter in the middle of a building or in a basement away from windows and stay there for 12 to 24 hours.
If survivors of a nuclear blast were exposed to potential doses that could be life-threatening 30 days to 60 days after exposure, there are four drugs currently available to treat them.
“The U.S. government has put in billions of dollars to develop medical countermeasures to treat acute radiation sickness. Since 2015, four drugs have been approved to treat radiation sickness and improve the likelihood of survival,” she said.
For example, in December 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency published guidance for responding to a nuclear detonation.
“I certainly don’t want to diminish, at all, the catastrophic nature of such an attack,” Jackson said. But she added that everything the government is doing should help to reverse the psychological thinking of fatalism.
She wants people to know: “There are things that people can do to improve their likelihood of survival, that there are treatments that have been shown to dramatically improve survival from acute radiation sickness and that the government is continuing to put money into developing new drugs every day.”
And, Jackson said, there are several drugs currently coming down the pipeline to treat the radiation exposure that doctors can’t treat right now.