Health action in crises

FAQs: Japan nuclear concerns


15 March 2011

Public health actions

Which public health actions are most important to take?

  • Health effects can only occur if someone is exposed to radiation, thus the main protective action someone can take is to prevent exposure. Those closest to the radiation are at greatest risk of exposure and the greater the distance away, the lower the risk. This is why when a nuclear accident occurs, the recommended public health actions involve evacuation and sheltering of those near the site.
  • These necessary actions depend on the estimated exposure (i.e., the amount of radioactivity released in the atmosphere and the prevailing meteorological conditions such as wind and rain. The actions include steps such as evacuation of people within a certain distance of the plant, providing shelter to reduce exposure and providing iodine pills for people to take to reduce the risk of thyroid cancer.).
  • If warranted, steps such as restricting the consumption of vegetables and dairy products produced in the vicinity of the power plant can also reduce exposure.
  • Only competent authorities who have conducted a careful analysis of the emergency situation are in a position to recommend which of these public health measures should be taken.

How can I protect myself?

  • Keep you and your family informed by obtaining accurate and authoritative information (for example, information from authorities delivered by radio, TV or the Internet) and following your government's instructions.
  • The decision to stockpile or take potassium iodide tablets should be based on information provided by national health authorities who will be in the best position to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant these steps.

What are potassium iodide pills?

  • In the setting of a nuclear power plant accident, potassium iodide pills are given to saturate the thyroid gland and prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine. When given before or shortly after exposure, this step can reduce the risk of cancer in the long term.
  • Potassium iodide pills are not "radiation antidotes". They do not protect against external radiation, or against any other radioactive substances besides radioactive iodine. They may also cause medical complications for some individuals such as persons with poorly functioning kidney and therefore taking potassium iodide should be started only when there is a clear public health recommendation to take this step.

Can pregnant women take potassium iodide pills?

  • Pregnant women should take potassium iodide pills only when instructed by the competent authorities because the thyroid of a pregnant woman accumulates radioactive iodine at a higher rate than other adults and because the thyroid of the fetus is also blocked by giving potassium iodide pills to the mother.
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