As tensions with North Korea escalate, some have begun to prepare for the worst by stockpiling potassium iodide, a oral medicine used to protect oneself from radiation.

In 1999, the World Health Organization released guidelines on the use of potassium iodide, citing the exposure of children to radiation after the Chernobyl disaster.

“The result, less than fifteen years after the accident, is more than 1000 cases of thyroid cancer, most probably solely attributable to this single release of radioactivity to the environment,” the report states.

Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, sales of potassium iodide surged, even in areas such as California, far-removed from the site of the disaster.

But will it actually protect you from radiation?

Jerrold Bushberg, assistant chair of the department of radiology at UC Davis, explains that potassium iodide is not a cure-all for radiation from a nuclear fallout.

Potassium iodide is a stable form of iodine which essentially fills up the thyroid gland like a sponge so that radioactive iodine cannot get in, Bushberg explains.

Other types of radiation associated with nuclear fallout and external radiation cannot be blocked by using potassium iodide. Potassium iodide is only useful in the event of a large release of radioiodine — which only occurs during events like a nuclear detonation or nuclear reactor accident.

The risk of developing thyroid cancer as a result of radiation is significantly higher in children and pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which does not recommend that adults 40 years of age or older take potassium iodide, as there are health risks associated with its use and the benefits are likely minimal.

Additionally, potassium iodide is useless in the event of a “dirty bomb,” a weapon designed to spread radioactive material.

According to the FDA, potassium iodide should merely be used as an adjunct to evacuation — as it has “no impact on the uptake by the body of other radioactive materials and provides no protection against external irradiation of any kind.”

Verify sources:
Jerrold Bushberg, assistant chair of the department of radiology at UC Davis

Verify resources:
WHO guidelines
FDA guidelines
Centers for Disease Control FAQ on potassium iodide
Amazon price history for potassium iodide