With news of nuclear weaponry amidst the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, many citizens rushed to the pharmacies to obtain free iodine tablets in Belgium.
Earlier this week, the Belgian Pharmacists’ Union said that 29,179 individuals went to their local pharmacies to stock up on iodine tablets in Belgium. Because of this, as many as 32,483 packs of iodine tablets were given out in the span of a single day. This is the third-highest number of iodine tablets distributed ever since it became accessible to citizens in 2018.
In the months of March to May of that year, the government initiated the information campaign “Do you know what to do in case of a nuclear accident?” This was done in line with EU Directive 89/618/Euratom. It aims to inform the general public about how they can protect themselves should a radiological emergency occur.
Tom Philips, a pharmacist from Holsbeek, says, “last year we delivered 9 doses in an entire year.” But on Monday of this week, he gave out 23 iodine tablets in Belgium.
The surge in demand for iodine tablets in Belgium began late last week. At that time, there was news that the fight between Russia and Ukraine was being conducted near Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The demand increased even more when Putin announced that nuclear deterrence forces were to be placed on high alert.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine was Seized by Russian Forces
Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, said that Russian military forces were trying to take control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Thursday last week.
He tweeted that “Russian occupation forces are trying to seize the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated.” He adds, “This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine shared the same sentiment. They tweeted, “In 1986, the world saw the biggest technological disaster in Chornobyl. Russia’s attack on Ukraine may cause another ecological disaster moving its military forces to Chornobyl. If Russia continues the war, Chornobyl can happen again in 2022.”
But Russia was able to successfully capture the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine later that day. Apart from that, staff of the power station were held as hostages.
Nuclear Deterrent Forces in Russia are on a “Special Regime of Combat Duty”
A long list of countries has placed sanctions on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine. The sectors of banks and financial services, energy and transport, and businesses have all been affected.
Because of the threatening words laid down by officials from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Putin ordered the Russian defence minister and the chief of the military’s general staff to place the nuclear deterrent forces on high alert.
On State television last Sunday, Putin said that “As you can see, not only do Western countries take unfriendly measures against our country in the economic dimension – illegitimate sanctions that everyone knows about. But also the highest-ranking officials of leading Nato countries are allowing themselves to make aggressive statements in relation to our country. For this reason I order the minister of defence and the chief of general staff to put deterrent forces on special combat duty.”
This means that Russia could make use of nuclear weapons at any given time. As such, if more sanctions are imposed to restrict Russia and if more countries provide support to Ukraine, a nuclear war is on the table.
Should Individuals Take Iodine Tablets in Belgium Now?
As of the moment, there is no need to take iodine tablets in Belgium.
The Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FNAC) advised citizens that “the current situation in Ukraine does not require iodine tablets. They are still freely available in pharmacies, but are not necessary in this specific case. Only take iodine on the recommendation of the authorities.”
Because of this, citizens are discouraged from practicing self-medication. Iodine tablets, even though given freely in the country, are still medicines with indications and risks. It would be safer to delay the intake of such tablets until official recommendations are made by government authorities.
What are the Health Risks of a Nuclear Explosion?
Radioactive iodine, an unstable material, is released when nuclear weapons are used. The release of this substance does not automatically equate to exposure. Individuals are only exposed when they come into contact with it. The substance can enter the human body through different routes, such as skin contact, inhalation, and the consumption of contaminated food and water.
The dosage, duration, and route of administration determine the gravity of the effects on the individual.
Upon exposure to radioactive iodine, the immediate health consequences are: loss of hair, skin burns, nausea, gastrointestinal distress, or even death.
Apart from that, long-term health consequences can also develop. First, the substance could destroy the thyroid gland, which leads to hypothyroidism. When this occurs, hormones are not produced. As a result, symptoms such as having a puffy face, gaining weight, experiencing constipation, being unable to tolerate cold temperatures, and depression could develop.
Second, it can also lead to the development of thyroid nodules, cancer, and genetic abnormalities. Lastly, pregnant women exposed to radioactive iodine can cause negative health outcomes for the children that they bear. This includes congenital hypothyroidism, mental retardation, and an increased risk for malignancy.
How Can Iodine Tablets Prevent the Negative Effects of Exposure to Radioactive Iodine?
The thyroid gland does not differentiate radioactive iodine from ordinary iodine.
The intake of iodine tablets, which are stable or non-radioactive, saturates the thyroid gland with iodine. Because of this, when an individual is exposed to radioactive iodine, none of it will be absorbed anymore. This is because the thyroid gland has already reached its capacity to take in iodine.
Iodine tablets in Belgium only protect individuals against internal exposure, such as inhalation or ingestion, of radioactive iodine.
It is important to note that iodine tablets are preventive measures. This means that they should be taken before or immediately right after exposure to radioactive iodine. Intake of tablets after the thyroid has been damaged will not cure it.
Also, these tablets do not provide protection against all radioactive substances. Its scope is only limited to radioactive iodine. Similarly, it only protects the thyroid gland, which is the part most sensitive to the substance. It does not prevent damage to other parts of the human body.
Despite this benefit, iodine tablets should still not be taken haphazardly. They are most effective when taken at the right time, as determined by health authorities. Because of this, taking them too soon may not provide any advantage to the individual. Rather, it puts them at risk of side effects from the medicine, which should not have been there if they had not taken iodine tablets without proper guidance.
Who Should Get Iodine Tablets in Belgium?
Those who reside near a nuclear installation should get a pack of iodine tablets in Belgium. Specifically, this refers to individuals who live in municipalities that are located within 20 kilometers of a nuclear installation.
The threshold is lower for those who reside near the National Institute of Radioelements (IRE) in Fleurus. Citizens should stock up on iodine tablets in Belgium if they live 10 kilometers away from the institution.
Individuals who are younger than 18 years old are more susceptible to the health effects of radioactive iodine. This similarly applies to women who are pregnant and breastfeeding. Because of this, they should store iodine tablets at home so that they can have easy access to them at their time of need.
However, iodine tablets are not for everyone. Those who are 40 years of age or older are not always recommended to consume this medicine. This is because there is a low risk of developing thyroid cancer or thyroid injury even when exposed to radioactive iodine. But their risk of experiencing allergic reactions or adverse effects is increased when they take iodine tablets. As such, the supposed benefits may not always outweigh the risks that come with the consumption of the tablets.
At the same time, those who have hypersensitivity reactions to iodine, thyroid diseases, and heart diseases should proceed with caution. They would need to consult with a physician before intake of iodine tablets.
How Should Iodine Tablets be Stored?
Iodine tablets can be stored for a minimum of 10 years from their production date. Individuals are advised to store the tablets in their original packaging. They should also be kept at room temperature and not be exposed to moisture and light. This will ensure that the iodine tablets are preserved properly and will not degrade, enabling them to produce the intended effect.
The packaging of the iodine tablets should only be removed immediately prior to consumption. Taking them out of the original packaging without intending to use them at that time will only end up with them being thrown away. This is because it would not be as effective anymore.
What are the Other Protective Measures Against Radioactive Substances?
Iodine tablets in Belgium are not the be-all and end-all of protective measures against radioactive substances. Different measures should also be taken to protect oneself from other radionuclides and external exposure.
Residents who are most likely to be affected by the release of radioactive substances should be evacuated. They should be temporarily placed in a safer location to prevent exposure.
Individuals should also take shelter, which refers to staying indoors. When doing so, windows, doors, and other openings should be kept closed to prevent contaminated air from flowing inside the area. Air conditioning and ventilation should be turned off.
The tension between Ukraine and Russia is keeping everyone on their toes. Taking iodine tablets in Belgium could add a layer of protection to individuals. However, as of the moment, there is no official recommendation to do so. Because of this, it would be best not to take them yet to prevent any untoward health consequences.