This article by Dr. Joe Alton was first published in American Thinker…
On January 27th, 2023, The World Health Organization (WHO), which keeps a list of what it consider essential medicines for times of trouble, updated its recommendations for what should be stockpiled for nuclear emergencies. Specifically mentioned are drugs that either prevent or reduce harm from radiation. This is the first such update since 2007.
(Aside: Does this mean WHO thinks that there’s trouble ahead?)
One WHO official, Dr. Maria Neira, stated: “It is essential that governments are prepared to protect the health of populations and respond immediately to emergencies. This includes having ready supplies of lifesaving medicines that will reduce risks and treat injuries from radiation.”
The organization also includes policy advice for developing and maintaining national stockpiles for dealing with nuclear emergencies.
The recent update includes events such as emergencies at nuclear power plants, hospitals and medical labs, accidents involving radioactive materials, and, of course, intentional use as a means of destruction.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I doubt this update comes because WHO is worried about a nuclear reactor meltdown. I’m guessing Vladimir Putin has something to do with it. His threats to use nuclear weapons has, likely, triggered the update.
Of course, WHO sometimes cries “The sky is falling!” as it has at times during the COVID pandemic. Russia, however, seems determined to make Ukraine a wasteland these days, even the parts they claim to actually be Russian territory. Anyone who denies the possibility of escalation from the Russians is, well, in denial.
In its update, WHO suggests practices for establishing and managing radiation-protection stockpiles in selected countries, most of which would be involved in an expanded Ukraine war or a future war over Taiwan.
Having had experience designing medical kits for disaster settings, I can give you an idea of what should be at hand in a radiation emergency. Of course, the generic things like gloves, masks, and more advanced personal protection equipment are imperative. Next, supplies to treat burns, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and other signs and symptoms of radiation sickness should be available in quantity. Given the weakened immune system in these patients, antibiotics to combat bacterial infections are also important.
There are specific drugs known to prevent damage from the common radioactive product of a nuclear event: radioiodine. After the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, radioiodine exposure led to thousands of cancers involving the thyroid gland, mostly in young people. This could have been prevented by the use of a compound known as potassium iodide. It’s a nonradioactive form of iodine. Taken as soon as exposure is identified, potassium iodide prevents the absorption of radioactive iodine, protecting against thyroid cancer.
How does potassium iodide work? Imagine your thyroid is a parking lot and the organ’s receptors are parking spaces. When you’re exposed to radioactive iodine, it takes up the parking spaces and, once there, irradiates the gland. This leads to cancer down the road. Taking non-radioactive potassium iodide or iodate fills the parking spaces, preventing the radioactive iodine from occupying them and causing damage.
Children should be treated first, as they’re most likely to end up with cancer later. Dosages of potassium iodide for older children are 65 mg a day for as much as ten days. Adults take 130 mg a day. Usually, radioiodine concentration drops relatively quickly, however, so the course of therapy may not require the full ten days.
Among other things, WHO suggests other agents like Prussian blue to remove radioactive cesium from the body and a calcium/zinc compound to treat internal contamination with a number of other radioactive elements.
Unlike potassium iodide, not all of the WHO recommended substances are available to the general public. Prevention of radiation damage to the body can, however, be obtained by the preparation of a “shelter.” I’m not talking about an underground bunker, although I won’t complain if you invite me to yours in a nuclear emergency.
Shielding will decrease exposure exponentially, so it’s important to know how to construct a barrier between your people and the radioactive source. Denser materials will give better protection.
Shielding effectiveness is measured in terms of “halving thickness.” This is the thickness of a particular material that will reduce gamma radiation (the most dangerous kind) by one half. When you multiply the halving thickness, you multiply your protection.
(Aside: Here are the halving thicknesses of some common materials:
- Lead: 4 inches or 1 centimeter
- Steel: 1 inch or 2.5 centimeters
- Concrete: 4 inches or 6 centimeters
- Packed Soil: 6 inches or 9 centimeters
- Water: 2 inches or 18 centimeters
- Wood: 11 inches or 28 centimeters
What does this mean from a practical standpoint? Let’s take concrete as an example: The halving thickness of concrete is 2.4 inches or 6 centimeters. That barrier thickness of concrete will drop exposure to gamma radiation by half. Doubling the thickness of the barrier to 4.8 inches or 12 cm drops it to one fourth (1/2 x 1/2). Tripling it to 7.2 inches or 18 cm will drop it to one eighth (1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2), etc. Ten halving thicknesses drops the total radiation exposure to 1/1024th of the level in the outside environment. For concrete, that would be 24 inches or 60 cm. If you can do that, people not killed by heat or kinetic energy close to ground zero can wait out even the highest radiation levels, which drop to less than 10 percent of the original value in the first 24 hours after the nuclear event.)
Hopefully, the world isn’t heading in this direction, but the World Health Organization isn’t wrong to update its nuclear precautions in today’s world. If the wrong finger hits the button, you’ll be glad you prepared medically for the consequences.
Joe Alton MD
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