Chernobyl: Iodine Pills and Radiation – Can Potassium Iodide Protect Against Nuclear Radioactivity as Shown in HBO's Miniseries?
Iodine pills and radioactivity (Photo Credits: HBO| Chernobyl)

If you’ve been following the HBO series Chernobyl, chances are you are hooked. The five-part historical miniseries explores the events in the catastrophic aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster that took place on April 26, 1986. For the uninitiated, the uranium core of an RBMK reactor in Pripyat in Ukrainian SSR split open during a test, sending lethal amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. It is the worst nuclear disaster in human history, graded as a Level 7 accident as per the International Nuclear Event Scale.  If you have been watching the series closely, it’s hard to miss the part where Emily Watson's character Ulana Khomyuk swallows iodine pills the moment she realises there’s a nuclear emergency. So what's the connection between iodine pills and radiation? How does iodine pills or potassium iodide (KI) protect you against radiation and nuclear radioactivity? Chernobyl Full Series Review: HBO’s Hard-Hitting Saga Based on a Real-Life Tragedy Is Bleak, Scary, but Ultimately, Brilliant!

Stable iodine will keep your thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine. Take one a day for as long as they last. And go east, get as far from Minsk as you can.

These are the words of Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson), who also asks Garanin to issue iodine tablets to the people before evacuating the city. This has prompted many to ponder about the radiation-busting qualities of iodine. How does swallowing iodine pill really help?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, KI is potassium iodide is a salt of stable iodine (iodine that is not radioactive). Your thyroid gland is the part of the body that is most sensitive to radioactivity. Cremating ‘Radioactive’ Man Causes Radiation Contamination at US Crematorium.

When you swallow the iodine pills, the stable iodine will block radioactive iodine from getting absorbed by your thyroid gland.

How Does Iodine Protect Us from Radioactivity?

During a nuclear accident, like the one at Chernobyl, radioactive iodine (iodine- 131) gets released into the atmosphere through “plumes” or clouds of radioactive smoke.

This can contaminate the soil, food, water and skin of people and expose them to radioactivity.

Though external exposure to radioactive iodine can be washed off with soap and water, internal exposure through inhalation and ingestion can have far-reaching consequences.

Iodine enters the body through the smoke and contaminated food and water and gets deposited in the thyroid gland. The thyroid is more sensitive to iodine because the gland uses it to make hormones.

Your thyroid gland, which is most sensitive to radioactivity, absorbs both stable and radioactive iodine because it cannot tell the difference between the two.

Absorption of radioactive iodine can increase the risk of thyroid cancer in children. According to the World Health Organization, younger the age of the child during exposure, higher the risk.

KI or potassium iodide prevents the radioactive iodine from getting absorbed by the thyroid gland. That’s because once the thyroid gland takes in all the stable iodine, it becomes full and doesn’t feel the need to absorb any more iodine, stable or otherwise, for 24 hours.

This explains why Khomyuk tells the female executive at Minsk to take one pill a day.

To prevent the damage done by radiation, one should consume the iodine pill before the radiation exposure or at the beginning.

That being said, iodine is NOT an antidote for radiation. It doesn’t offer protection against the other ill effects of radiation.

It doesn’t protect against external radiation when deposited on the ground, surfaces or on foods. It also doesn’t prevent radioactive iodine from entering the body. It only blocks your thyroid from absorbing radiation.