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“Counterproductive and potentially toxic”: Experts warn against taking iodine tablets amid soaring demand

15:16 01/03/2022

Belgian pharmacies have been dealing with a rush of customers seeking iodine tablets as the ongoing war in Ukraine has triggered fear of a nuclear disaster. 

Belgium’s Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) warned that such tablets should under no circumstances be taken preventively, or on one’s own initiative, Le Soir reports.

“The current situation in Ukraine does not require iodine tablets,” FANC tweeted. “For those over 40, it is counterproductive and even potentially toxic.”

But the Belgian Pharmacists' Association (ABP) says that demand is constantly increasing. Last Thursday, some 1,500 boxes of 10 potassium iodide tablets were dispensed (free of charge on presentation of a Belgian identity card) and almost 4,000 per day were given out on Friday and Saturday. 

The 10,000 mark is thought to have been reached this Monday, but ABP says the country is still far from the peak levels recorded in March of 2018 when nearly 45,000 boxes were issued after the nuclear safety plan was put in place. 

People who already obtained tablets in 2018 don’t need to acquire more as iodine pills do not have an expiry date. Only the date of manufacture is noted on the packaging.

Taking pills in absence of recommendation could be dangerous

FANC has tried to push back against the panic buying, saying that the tablets “are still freely available in pharmacies, but are not necessary in this specific case. Only take iodine on the recommendation of the authorities”.

This advice is also stated in the dosage instructions on the medicine’s packaging. In red capital letters it says that they should never be taken on one's own initiative or as a preventive measure. The protection of the thyroid gland – the reason why people take the pills in response to nuclear disasters – is most effective when iodine tablets are taken shortly before or almost simultaneously with exposure to radioactive iodine.

“Personally, I will not rush to obtain iodine, neither for myself nor for my children,” said professor Roland Hustinx, head of the department of nuclear medicine and oncological imaging at the University Hospital of Liège.

Hustinx also warns against the toxicity of iodine for some people over the age of 40, in particular those suffering from conditions like hyperthyroidism. For those over 40, taking tablets increases the risk of thyroid dysfunction, making it counterproductive to take them.

In regards to the potential danger of Russia’s takeover of Ukrainian nuclear sites, the expert pointed out that monitoring systems in Europe will provide the necessary time to react quickly and obtain the tablets in the event they are needed. 

The official Belgian website Nuclear Risk reminds visitors that iodine tablets do not offer any protection against other radioactive substances and that in case of emergency, it's necessary to take shelter.

Photo : Belga/Dirk Waem



Written by Helen Lyons