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JISHOU, HUNAN — Salt has just become the most sought after commodity in China since Japan’s looming nuclear emergency started a week ago.

Prompted by word of mouth medical advice, Chinese — especially those in the eastern provinces close to Japan — have nearly cleared the supermarket shelves of salt. What salt is available is being sold at exorbitant prices, following the time-honored advice of W.C. Fields, “Never give a sucker an even break.”

[Apparently, the word on the street is that iodized salt — if they are even bothering to check for the iodized part — is a suitable replacement for potassium iodide (KI) pills. KI doses are a preventive measure against radioactive iodine, a component of nuclear fallout, concentrating in one’s thyroid glands. Someone consuming enough salt to effectively replace KI pills would probably keel over from high blood pressure, or at least from excessive thirst.]

Meanwhile, a fake email alert purporting to be from the BBC has circulated all around Asia, advising people to stay inside, avoid getting rained on, and to put betadine on the skin near their thyroid glands.

BBC Flash news : Japan Government confirms radiation leak at Fukushima nuclear plants. Asian countries should take necessary precautions. If rain comes, remain indoors first 24 hours. Close doors and windows. Swab neck skin with betadine where thyroid area is, radiation hits thyroid first. Take extra precautions. Radiation may hit Philippine at around 4 pm today. If it rains today or in the next few days in Hong Kong. Do not go under the rain. If you get caught out, use an umbrella or raincoat, even if it is only a drizzle. Radioactive particles, which may cause burns, alopecia or even cancer, may be in the rain.

We are nearly 1,000 miles from Japan, and there are even people in Hunan stocking up on salt and worrying about going outside. Today, I got a message on my cellphone from the local government advising people to be sensible and not go salt-crazy. It also asked us to report any price gouging to the police.

So, let’s talk some facts, at least as I know them.

There are lots of kinds of radiation. But the kind we need to discuss here is ionizing radiation, specifically the kind that comes from nuclear power plants, alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Ionizing radiation is just plain bad, because it disrupts our cell’s normal processes, or kills the cells completely, or causes mutations in our DNA.

Brief exposure to intense radiation, Bruce Banner and the Fantastic Four notwithstanding, will kill you. Period. You don’t get superpowers, or even a grouchy alter ego. You get massive skin burns and total cellular shutdown within hours. D-E-A-D. (Or D-E-D, if you’re a Rocky Horror fan.) The only people who need worry about this scenario are the 50 or so workers at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant. One worker has apparently already died from such a burst of radiation.

As you get further away from the site, the intensity of the radiation falls off with the square of the distance. So Japan has evacuated only those people within 30 km (18 miles) of the power plant, not the entire country.

But, there’s another side to the problem. The plant has been emitting radioactive steam and smoke into the atmosphere, and prevailing winds are carrying that stuff all over. Japanese officials have reported higher than normal radiation in Tokyo, which is southwest of the plant. In fact, within the next week or so, that radioactive stuff will reach the West Coast of the USA.

Like the inverse-square relation, the further the fallout goes, the further it gets spread out and the weaker it gets. So, while radiation levels might be higher than they are now, if you are in the USA or even China’s eastern provinces, they will not be high enough to be much of a danger. Some of the fallout’s components, like iodine, will have lost most of their radioactivity within days, anyway. Besides, the human body can recover from short exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation within days of exposure. (Though you’d feel like shit during the recovery. Just ask a cancer patient undergoing radiation therapy.)

Besides, one full body CT scan would expose you to far more radiation than the trickle of fallout from Japan would give you. A CT scan is equivalent to standing a mile and a half from ground zero when the A-bomb hit Hiroshima, without the million-degree heat and supersonic shock wave that would have turned you into bazillions of individual atoms, of course.

Closer to the site in Japan, there will be serious health and safety issues. Fallout will initially dust outside surfaces with radioactive materials. But over time, that dust will find its way into the soil, the groundwater, plants, and livestock. Anyone living in those areas would suffer the effects of longterm exposure to pervasive levels of environmental: increased chances of cancer, leukemia, birth defects and stillbirths, to name a few. There are still people suffering from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and from the power plant accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, after all. Japan will probably have to declare the area around the Fukushima a No-man’s Land.

China has been ramping up its own nuclear energy program, but recently government officials announced a slowdown in plans. They want to inspect China’s existing nuclear plants, and reconsider the design of the ones planned. Japan’s woes after the earthquake and tsunami were a wake-up call to the dangers of nuclear power. Utlimately, China would have 40 nuclear power plants pumping out the megawatts to an ever expanding electrical grid.

One wonders if Japan will also reconsider its plant designs once it recovers from this week’s catastophes. Buying up salt will not be enough.

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