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Bitter pill to swallow: Why iodine tablets won’t save you from nuclear fallout

As Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un battle it out over the size of their nuclear buttons, attention is again turning to a common myth – that swallowing a simple pill will guard against radioactive fallout.

Iodine tablets, widely considered to offer the antidote to nuclear apocalypse, are reportedly the subject of a surge of interest in the wake of the world leaders’ recent saber-rattling.

The substance – officially called potassium iodide, with the chemical name KI – is often marketed as a ‘radiation blocking’ solution that can protect against poisoning and thyroid cancer. In reality, however, the tablets have a much more limited scope and are not even recommended as an essential part of FEMA’s emergency kit in the event of nuclear disaster.

KI only protects the thyroid, not other parts of the body, from radioactive iodine and is not recommended by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a remedy to nuclear fallout.

Potassium iodide also fails to keep radiation from entering the body and cannot reverse the health effects once the thyroid is damaged, the CDC states.

KI “works only to prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine into the thyroid gland. It is not a general radioprotective agent,” the FDA warns on its website.

The drug, which has a shelf life of up to seven years, protects against absorption of radioactive iodine into the thyroid – for about 24 hours. There are four FDA-approved iodide products currently available, all without a prescription.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a contract to purchase KI for states with nuclear reactors or those with population centers within the 10-mile emergency planning zone. It states that while evacuation is the most effective protective measure in the event of a radiological emergency, “administering KI can be a reasonable, prudent, and inexpensive supplement to in-place sheltering and evacuation.”


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