Ionizing radiation is a type of energy released by atoms in the form of electromagnetic waves. Occupational exposure to ionizing radiation can potentially impact first responders during an emergency response (such as during a nuclear power plant emergency), and if radiation doses are high enough first responders may develop skin burns or acute radiation syndrome. Iodine and caesium are the radioactive isotopes of most concern. When radioactive iodine is released into the environment, it enters the body via inhalation or ingestion and is then concentrated in the thyroid gland, increasing the risk for thyroid cancer.
Actions that can be protective during nuclear emergencies include evacuation, sheltering indoors and administration of nonradioactive iodine. Nonradioactive iodine prevents the thyroid gland’s uptake of radioactive iodine. Specifically, potassium iodide pills are taken before or shortly after exposure, which then saturates the thyroid gland with nonradioactive iodine and thereby reduces the uptake of radioactive iodine.
Defined by: Sarah Rosquist, MD