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Ukraine war: Moldova ships in one million iodine pills amid fears of nuclear disaster

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By Ben Turner
Iodine pills stop radioactive iodine from being absorbed into thyroid glands, which can develop cancer if infected
Iodine pills stop radioactive iodine from being absorbed into thyroid glands, which can develop cancer if infected   -   Copyright  Thierry Roge/AFP

Moldova has imported one million iodine pills as fighting rages around a nuclear power station in neighbouring Ukraine.

But the country -- with a population of 2.5 million people -- insists locals should not panic.

Shelling has intensified near Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant - the largest of its kind in Europe - with the UN warning fighting could "lead to disaster".

Now Moldova, which borders Ukraine and is 480km from the power station, has shipped in iodine pills donated by Romania, to be taken in case of a nuclear emergency. 

The tablets can prevent radioactive elements from building up in the body. 

They work to stop radioactive iodine from being absorbed into people's thyroid glands, which can develop cancer if infected by radiation. 

But Moldova's government says it has seen no increase in radiation levels and said people must wait for official instruction before taking the pills, which are being stored at local medical facilities.

However, in the event of a nuclear disaster, iodine pills will be first issued to people unable to evacuate or take shelter such as emergency workers, Moldova's National Agency for Public Health said.

Andrey Borodulin/AFP
A Russian serviceman patrols the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in Ukraine on May 1, 2022Andrey Borodulin/AFP

Moldovan authorities advise citizens to take cover in cellars or basements, or evacuate the area, in the event of a nuclear emergency. 

On 10 August, Moldova's environment agency published radiation levels that it said were below the country's "warning limit" of 0.25 microsieverts (μSv) per hour. 

It published figures of 0.10 μSv/hour and 0.17 μSv per hour recorded at two power stations in Moldova.

In a public statement, the environment agency said: "Following the appearance of some press materials concerning the tense situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, for the correct information of the public opinion, we inform you that the Environment Agency is monitoring the evolution of radioactivity in the environment.

"It announces that, at present, there are no registered changes in the radioactive background in limits that would exceed the maximum permitted values."

The European Union agreed in March to collectively stockpile protective gear and medicines in case of a nuclear disaster. 

A survey carried out in March found that 20 EU states already had stockpiles of iodine pills, with many reserves pre-dating the war in Ukraine. 

Who should take iodine pills and when?

Governments typically distribute iodine pills to people living within 20km of a nuclear facility as a precautionary measure.

The pills, which contain potassium iodide, work specifically to prevent radiation from being absorbed by the thyroid gland, which can develop thyroid cancer. 

The quicker the tablets are taken in the event of a nuclear disaster, the more effective they will be, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Yet nuclear radiation experts warn against people taking iodine pills without the express advice of authorities. 

Dr Hielke Freerk Boersma, a radiation protection expert at the University of Groningen, told Euronews in March that taking the tablets as a preventative measure could have "adverse" effects. 

“The unnecessary use of iodine tablets - that might happen when people panic - might also give rise to adverse health effects, albeit that the chance of these effects to occur, is very small," Dr Boersma said. 

Experts also say that taking higher doses of potassium iodide than recommended can cause severe illness or death.