Radiation Fears Spur Panic Buying as Chinese Government Urges Transparency from Japan

Chinese citizens have been buying out supplies of table salt, under the false impression that it will help protect them from radiation from the nuclear situation in Japan. From the Los Angeles Times:

The clamor for salt reportedly started after rumors spread, possibly by cellphone text-messaging, that China would be hit by a radioactive cloud from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which had been badly damaged during last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

People were under the false impression that consuming enough iodized salt would protect against radiation and that China’s sea salt supplies would be contaminated as a result of the unfolding Japanese crisis.

That sparked long lines and mob scenes in some of China’s largest cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou.

In a scene repeated across the country, online video from the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou showed panicked shoppers filling their baskets with tubs of salt and street vendors complaining about being cleaned out of the seasoning. “I hear there was also a huge earthquake in Taiwan and it will hurt salt supply,” a woman is heard saying. There was no earthquake in Taiwan.

Table salt in fact does not provide protection against radiation, NPR reports. The UK’s chief scientist stated that there was in any case no chance that leaked radiation might pose a danger to health in China:

In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area. It’s not serious for elsewhere even if you get a combination of that explosion it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres. If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down do we have a problem? The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue. The problems are within 30 km of the reactor … Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health.

A message circulated by the US Embassy in Beijing offered similar reassurance:

“Based on information from authoritative sources in the U.S. and throughout the region,” the message reads, “there is currently no evidence to suggest that nuclear events in Fukushima, Japan will have any health impact on individuals residing in China.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has urged the Japanese government to be open and transparent in releasing information about the severity of the impending nuclear crisis. From AFP:

“We hope the Japanese side will release information, as well as its evaluation and prediction of the situation, to the public in a timely and precise manner,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

Jiang had been asked for comment on the deepening peril in Japan, where last Friday’s 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami have left a nuclear power plant on its east coast leaking radiation and in danger of meltdown.

Jiang did not specifically criticise Japan’s level of openness.

China — whose relations with Japan are often prickly — was “very sympathetic and sincerely hope that the Japanese people will overcome the difficulties”, Jiang said, adding China had donated 20,000 tonnes of fuel and $4.5 million in other aid to its Asian neighbour.

Some observers have noted that this advice is a bit hypocritical, given the Chinese government’s own failure to come clean in past national emergencies, Global Post reports:

Online commenters noted some irony, given that China itself has not exactly been known for transparency in its own past emergencies, with the most notable example being its handling of the 2003 SARS health crisis. In that, officials covered up the extent and deadliness of the new virus before doctors finally blew the whistle and the true scope was revealed.

Read more about radiation fears in China via CDT.

March 17, 2011 11:26 AM
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