Japan, Radiation and Poor Taste: When to Panic?

Just before I left Xi’an, China this week, my traveling companion Xixi informed me that CCTV, Chinese State Television, was informing everyone that though much of the salt had sold out at the stores, there was plenty more to come and not to panic. I had to ask her to repeat. “Did you say salt??” Rumors that salt might prevent radiation poisoning in the wake of the Japanese reactor damages have run rampant. Salt is used in detoxification for hydrotherapy and there is enough of a kernel of misguided truth in there for people to stand in long lines in China and clear out the salt supply. And where there is high demand, of course, there are also price gougers. Customers are being limited to how much salt they can purchase as the government now tries to stop gougers and fight the panic.

In the name of caution, not panic, I canceled my Tokyo trip scheduled for April 1. All Nippon Airways is obviously taking this all very seriously, and though my plane ticket from Tokyo back to Bangkok had refund restrictions, the airline is refunding the full amounts of any and all tickets in and out of Japan since the tragedy. I couldn’t get through to ANA to cancel on the phone in China, so I sent an email. I had a reply the next day and the refund was already being processed. Then I read that Delta and United are not redirecting their flights that go through Tokyo’s Narita Airport. While European airlines were finding alternatives — Lufthansa is using Seoul to overnight their flight crews — official spokespeople from Delta and United, when asked what they would do, stated they didn’t want to speculate. This would mean big money losses for them, so don’t expect them to be leading the charge for safety. So far United has not replied at all to my request to cancel my Seoul-Tokyo flight or get a refund. Big surprise. It appears that Delta just canceled a flight/route today.

I told a friend last night via email that unfortunately I won’t be bringing any Japanese Royce chocolates back to the States with me after my trip. I has (half?) kidding that the food itself might not be safe. But the FDA is monitoring foods. Japan has already found traces of radiation in food beyond their government’s safety limits and over 100 km from the disaster zone –though allegedly at levels still well shy of causing actual health dangers. An official compared it to a CT scan if you consumed a kilo of tainted spinach per day for a year. As articles are starting to suggest maybe the US government isn’t being clear on how much radiation may be coming across the Pacific, others in Europe are showing they’ve detected some effects already in the atmosphere. What it all realistically means for one’s health is subject to debate, but currently downplayed by many experts.

But when I arrived here in Taipei yesterday, this was waiting for us in immigration. One should never actually panic, but at what point do we take this more seriously? And with the current state of news and information being manipulated by people more concerned with profits and power, with facts being relegated to the realm of “just opinion” and vice versa, who are we going to trust about it all? One blog says, See how dangerous nuclear power is and could be? The next cries “Liberal!” and rants about those who prefer “fairy dust” (ie. wind and solar power) to solve our energy problems. Whatever debate that ensues will likely not accomplish much in the way of furthering our wisdom and intelligence and isn’t going to matter much to the victims, survivors, relief workers and the brave souls who are going in there to try to leash what’s been unleashed.

The radiation doesn’t disturb me as much as the knowledge that in cases of emergency, some corporations or governments might not be forthcoming with usable information, either to avoid PR damage and profit/power loss, or simply to prevent a mad stampede on Morton’s at the grocery store. I’m still not clear on whether these Chinese salt buyers are just bathing in the salt or actually consuming it. By the end of the week I don’t doubt the rumor mill will have distorted the advice so much that people will just be throwing some over a shoulder for luck. Probably as effective as anything.

After a day of business appointments in Taipei, I found a crowd of volunteers collecting donations for the victims in Japan. Commuters stopped frequently to hand them change.
The tragedy in Japan does much more than remind us of the powers of nature, its indiscriminate destructive forces, and our inability to predict and defend against them. It may push (some of) us to rethink how lightly many of us take the state of our environment, nuclear power, safety, and back-up plans. The worse-case scenario planners come up with is often just the third or fourth worst possibility. WikiLeaks informs us authorities had been warned three years ago that safety standards were out of date. (Though this doesn’t necessarily mean they would have prepared for this particular scenario had they heeded the warnings either.) It has also depressed me further to see the likes of Rush Limbaugh making light of the deaths of over 10,000 people and the potential radiation threat that is following, by mocking the island nation’s impressive recycling practices and conservation efforts. (??!) I’ve seen comments on the interwebs calling this payback for World War II. Seriously?

There is a sickness alright, but it isn’t radiation and I fear it much more than nuclear meltdowns, tsunamis and salt shortages.
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From my visit to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. While these are two entirely different nuclear events, what struck me about the former was the number of people who died long after the fact just from the exposure. 60,000 died by the end of 1945, but thousands more suffered longer, slower deaths. Particularly touching is the story of Sadako Sasaki who died at the age of 12, ten years after the dropping of the atomic bomb. She made origami cranes during her last days in the hospital.

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Update: Monday, March 21

David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge professor of Public Understanding of Risk, wrote a good piece for BBC about the psychological power of radiation and explains why the actual health risk from the Fukushima reactors is minimal.

6 thoughts on “Japan, Radiation and Poor Taste: When to Panic?

  • March 20, 2011 at 4:04 am
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    Good to hear from you! Outstanding writing. Agreed on every point. Stay safe out there and see you soon! Headed to the kitchen to coat myself in salt…

    Reply
    • March 20, 2011 at 11:53 am
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      Yes, salt is definitely the answer, Ray. You have my unbiased and uncompromised word on that. And remember, Morton Salt. Morton: When it rains it pours. http://www.mortonsalt.com

      Reply
  • March 20, 2011 at 6:48 am
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    It’s good that with technology, we can know what’s going on in the world quickly, but too often the news we hear is dramatized or just plain wrong. It seems like my Japanese friends in the States are more worried than my friends in Japan.

    The Facebook status of one of my friends in Tokyo was ‘Tokyo will be in a huge panic soon, people already rush to get their OWN foods, get confused by media( they just keep talking about how tsunami was terrible and how radiation affect us blah blah blah), put masks and gloves and caps on to prevent radiation…etc C A L M D O W N.’

    I think without the dramatic spin the media puts on things, people would be much calmer and realize that Toyko probably won’t be affected by the radiation. I hope the experts are right and I hope people start listening to the facts, not just the extreme possibilities.

    Reply
    • March 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm
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      One of the troubles with all of this is our immediate access to news outlets that are in a race to be the first to say something, ANYthing about an incident. Never mind fact checking or delivering it without showmanship. And no news is good news means something different these days. The only news we get now is scary and draws viewership/traffic. But then like with the boy who cried wolf, when do we know when to take the drama seriously after drama overload? Our experience with nuclear meltdown is relatively limited and because so many factors are involved, much of the warnings and predictions are at best educated guesses. We may end up with an even worse catastrophe, things could turn out better than expected, or things could seemingly pass and several years down the road there’s a wave of suspicious cancers. It irked me that China’s first response to the masses starting to panic was Don’t worry, we have enough salt! rather than, Knock it off people, this isn’t even a threat for you. The CDC just issued a travel health precaution for Japan advising people to avoid being within 50 miles of Fukushima. That doesn’t seem unreasonable. People can’t handle some of this information. They hear “some food has been found to be a bit radioactive” and right away their ears stop up so they don’t hear the part about eating 2 kilos of it a day for a year to get the equivalent radiation of one CT scan.

      One bad point about hearing all the bad news around the world: there’s just too much of it. No sound mind can hold all the world’s tragedy in a single moment. It wears me out. There is no 24-hour news network full of feel good human interest stories.

      Reply
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