We’re all downwind

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  • by Frank Paynter on December 28, 2024

    I went to the pharmacy to pick up potassium iodide tablets, just in case. They don’t stock them at my local Walgreens. The pharmacist laughed at me. “Concerned about radiation? Do you have gas masks too?” Oops. He lost a customer forever. Or for the next year, whichever comes first.

    On Friday, April 25, 1986, as a result of human error during experiments being performed by the staff at Chernobyl, the cooling system failed resulting in the melting of fuel and, of greater importance to the public, the graphite moderator ignited and began the release of what has been approximated as 1900 PBq [1] of activity to the environment (it has been commented that had there been a containment building similar to the ones used in U.S. reactors, this value might have been greatly reduced). The most hazardous isotopes released in this accident are known to Cs-137, I-131, and Sr-90. These isotopes have half-lives sufficiently long to allow them to migrate into the body or, in the case of Iodine, have the tendency to accumulate in the thyroid gland.

    The plume from the burning graphite initially traveled in a northwest direction toward Sweden, Finland and eastern Europe, exposing the public to levels up to 100 times the normal background radiation. A very serious concern involves the contamination of grain and dairy products from fallout. This contamination presents the chance for permanent internal contamination. Both Sr-90 and I-131 migrate to vital organs in the body where they are impossible to remove, serving as a constant source of unnecessary radiation and as a cause of cancer or other diseases.

    The potential ramifications of the Bhutto assassination in the context of the US election year are probably only clear to the war gamers in the clandestine services. Any destabilization of Pakistan puts five or six nuclear powers into play, powers with leadership as deranged and avaricious as Bush, Cheney, and Putin… powers as assertive as India and China when it comes to maintaining membership in the nuclear club and powers as unpredictable as Pakistan and North Korea. Regardless of who would benefit from blowing up a few bombs in South Asia, it’s clear that all of us would be harmed. The odds are pretty good at my age that I could soak up some radioactive iodine and still die from natural causes before the thyroid cancer kills me. But what about the kids? Good news there for the developed nations! Thyroid cancer is very treatable with modern medical technology.

    There is no medicine that will effectively prevent nuclear radiations from damaging the human body cells that they strike.However, a salt of the elements potassium and iodine, taken orally even in very small quantities 1/2 hour to 1 day before radioactive iodines are swallowed or inhaled, prevents about 99% of the damage to the thyroid gland that otherwise would result. The thyroid gland readily absorbs both non-radioactive and radioactive iodine, and normally it retains much of this element in either or both forms.

    When the nuclear dust starts drifting, you’re better off with a stash of potassium iodide in the medicine chest. No joke.

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