Salt and Iodine
Though over 1,800 miles away, the nuclear crisis in Fukushima caused an out spark of rumours and confusion in Hong Kong.
“Is radiation from the crippled plants blown across the sea to Hong Kong?” “If workers at the plants are taking iodine tablets, should I get some too, just in case?” “Would other iodine products like salt and iodine ointment work too?”
“Will Japan food imports be contaminated by radiation?” “My baby drinks Japanese brand milk formula, will imports be cut off soon?”
(More on radiation, salt and iodine facts click here)
A city-wide salt scrambling occurred on March 16, four days after the first report of radiation leakage, a rumour spread from mainland China to Hong Kong saying that eating salt prevents radiation invasion into the body.
Some stores raised salts prices by over 12 times. A pack of table salt which cost HK$1.5 was raised to HK$20.
A grocery store manager at Sheung Shui market, Ms Tin, said many customers from the mainland came to buy salt at her shop that morning. At the time she was still selling them at HK$2 a pack.
“They each bought about 30 to 40 packs. All salt in my shop was sold out. I called the supplier and found that salt price has increased by three times that day. They couldn’t tell me when the stock would be delivered,” she said.
Towards noon that day, salt prices in shops started rising. Many people, especially housewives thought there would be a “salt crisis”, and went scrambling for salt.
A grocery store in North Point had a queue outside that store that reached a hundred customers at a point, according to people at the scene that day. Many of them were elderlies and foreign domestic helpers. Some of them did not know what was being sold at first but nonetheless they joined the queue.
There were reports that some who failed to buy salt turned to buy soya sauce and chicken power instead.
Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok responded to the salt rush on March 16, saying that the public should have the ability to judge and not to believe in rumours. He said even if radiation from Japan reached Hong Kong, it would be much diluted.
On March 17, some large shopping malls started giving out “anti-radiation” packs to customers as an attraction.
Kwun Tong’s apm shopping mall handed out 10,000 such packs consisting of medical use iodine ointment, face masks and raincoats. Packs given out at other shopping malls included green tea bags, claiming green tea has radiation prevention functions.
Chow said spreading iodine ointment on the body had absolutely no use in preventing radiation. People should not take iodine pills, as taking in too much iodine may cause goiter formation.
Rumours on the internet said radiation levels in Hong Kong increased by five times, which Under Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok dismissed as false. There were also fake websites claiming to raise funds for Japan. He urged the public not to believe in online information from unknown sources.
Other rumours included a warning to stay sheltered from the rain, as the rain may have been contaminated by radiation. The message was circulated widely through mobile phone text messages.
It was proved groundless as radiation levels detected in Hong Kong by the Hong Kong Observatory remained low. Officials said it had no effects on human health.
The salt rush lasted only for a day, partly because most stores in the city soon ran out of stock, and also because the incident was widely reported in local news. The public was soon informed about its ridiculous nature.
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