Iodine-131 is the most feared fission product when released into the atmosphere after the atomic bomb explosions or an accident like Chernobyl. The danger comes from its volatility and high radioactivity. Breathed, it concentrates on the thyroid and is the cause of cancers of this sensitive gland that fixed iodine.
Experts believe that iodine-131 was responsible for 46% of the activity dispersed after the explosion of the reactor. During the first hours, other radioactive isotopes contribute, iodine 133 and 132, whose lifetimes are even shorter. The iodine short lifetimes generate a fast decrease with time of the iodine risk. The activity of iodine-131 activity is divided by 14 times in one month, 2700 in a quarter.
This disappearance led to a special prevention technique. In the case of exposure, one has to prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine. By absorbing non-radioactive iodine pills, one saturates the thyroid which no longer assimilates the dangerous isotope. This gives time to go a less contaminated area and allows to wait for the disappearance of iodine-131. Iodine pills often come too late for inhalation, but are useful for preventing exposures folowing pills uptakes. One must give them in priority to children, teens and pregnant women but not to the elderly
Soviet authorities were not able to distribute preventive pills in the Chernobyl area. Iodine-131 uptake generated thyroid cancer, especially among the most sensitive children. Fourteen years after the disaster, an excess of 1800 thyroid cancer was observed. This wave of cancers had not been foreseen at the time by radiological protection experts who had expected instead an increase of leukemia. These cancers screened early and taken timely are curable in principle. This was the case, but the deplorable health situation in the former Soviet Union aggravated the tragedy.
In France, the exposure to iodine-131 was in general low
In France, exposures were in average much lower. Mountainous regions like the Alps and Corsica were the most contaminated, because they stopped the cloud, which stood at an altitude of 1500-3000 meters. Rains then washed the atmosphere bringing the radioactivity to the ground.
The incidence of thyroid cancer in Corsica which was discussed in publicized law suits is unlikely. The Island is not known for its cattle and milk production. The milk drunk by children and newborns was imported from the continent...
French authorities did not distribute preventive iodine pills mainly because the exposures were estimated low in average. This non-distribution had no significant effects, but was criticized and not understood by the public. Since then, authorities have stockpiled such pills and would distribute them to people at risk.
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