Siege mentality taking hold, strangely enough

Friday 18 March 2011, 3.02pm HKT

OVERHEARD this morning at breakfast time:

“I feel sick. I had two spoonfuls of salt last night, but I’m feeling quite bad now. It’s definitely the radiation — I know it, I can feel it. I’m going to the hospital right now to get treatment.”

(sophisticated-looking lady, cafeteria, 6.39am, 18 March)

That is the long and short of what’s happening because of The Japanese Earthquake Tsunami Volcano Nuclear Meltdown Disaster of 2011 (a.k.a. Sushi’s Revenge).

In Hong Kong.


We’re thousands of miles away from Japan, with radiation levels only marginally higher than our usual background radiation. This is the lunacy that’s taking hold in otherwise sensible-thinking people here.

Lady, it ain’t the radiation. It’s the bleeding salt you ate last night. Two spoonfuls will make anyone sick. Hurr Durr.

* * *

Hongkongers are a strange bloody lot. If something isn’t price-jackupable for no reason, if something isn’t hoardable, we won’t otherwise touch it. We have a ‘Speculate or gouge!’ engine built into our heads. In the last couple of days, more and more of us are becoming noticeably non compos mentis.

Witness: Supermarket shelves (at least around where I live) are increasingly left bare only a week into Sushi’s Revenge. Over at our New York namesake Times Square, even toni outlets such as City’super (not known for reasonable price of anything) are watching food shelves cleaned out by midmorning.

Witness: By 11am yesterday, the supermarket down the road from my place was cleaned out of its bottled water, salt, instant noodles, bread and — would you believe in times like this — sushi!

Be sure to take a pinch of

Witness: Mad scrambles yesterday in couple of places in Hong Kong for salt. So comical, but also so depressing. A half-kilo (1 pound) packet of table salt normally going for HK$2 (25 U.S. cents or 15p in UK money) shot up to HK$27 (US$3.50 or £2.14). Salt-hoarding apparently calmed down a bit today, but it’s still going like mad up in mainland China.

“I say you, who on earth hoards salt?! This is madness. What the government should be doing is to tell people, ‘We have so-and-so measures in place. There is no need to worry. So-and-so things will be done if this-or-that happens.’ It’s totally ludicrous! I am ashamed as a Hongkonger [that salt hoarding is happening].”

(soundbite from a pensioner on the local TV news, 18 March)

Witness: Potassium iodide (KI), the so-called anti-radiation iodine* tablet, is flying off pharmacy shelves here in Hong Kong (as well as in the States). Just make sure it’s KI and not KCN (potassium cyanide) — not a bad idea to consider if the Japanese situation freefalls.

* Pronounced eye-oh-DEEN — not bloody EYE-oh-dine. Trust bleeding TV journalists to things wrong. Just like ‘methyl-‘ (pronounced mee-thyle, not like ‘meth aisle’).

* * *

Amazing how thoughtfully ignorant people could be. I know where this salt hysteria comes from. Idiot with a half-baked knowledge of O-level chemistry sort of remembered that table salt contains iodine. Same idiot also sort of remembered from said half-baked knowledge that iodine protects from radiation poisoning. Bolt the two together, take it to its logical conclusion, and, ding! ding! ding! you have yourself perfect price speculation.

FACT: Table salt indeed contains iodine, but mainly to prevent goitre. There’s just too little iodine to protect from radiation sickness. We’d have to eat around 7 kilogrammes (15 pounds) daily to equal one iodine tablet. You die from sodium chloride poisoning or vascular disruption before you die from radiation poisoning.

FACT: If you don’t have actual radiation sickness, taking iodine tablets will stress out your thyroid gland enough to die from it.

Her: “Rob, what happens when you take iodine but no radiation sickness yet?”

Me: “I don’t. But if you mean you’re going to … iodine poisoning. Your metabolism goes into overdrive. General tissue damage. Neck swells like a balloon. Stomach cancer. Cystic fibrosis of the breast. You go blind permanently within 24 to 96 hours. You bleed through your vagina. In short, contraceptive pills protect you more than iodine pills.”

(conversation, 18 March)

Prevent idiots: birth control pills

FACT: Thing is, any O-level** biology student will tell you iodine tablets protects only the thyroid gland. And only from radioisotope iodine. It doesn’t do anything for the rest of the body. The stuff the Japanese nuclear reactors could spew out (uranium oxide and radioisotope caesium-137) are absorbed by the bone through the skin. Where’s your god now?

** O(rdinary) level is British for American junior high school.

FACT: Even according to my own woefully outdated knowledge of biophysics, a person has to receive more than 5 rems of ionising radiation to result in radiation poisoning. Metric people, 1 rem = 10 millisieverts (mSv) or 1 mSv = 1/10th (0.1) rem. In other words, it’s 5 × 10 = 50 mSv to get radiation poisoning.

How much radiation are we getting (highest to lowest)?


  • A chest CAT scan = 3/5th rem – 14/5 rems (6 to 18 mSv)
  • Sleeping 8 hours next to another person = 1/20,000th rem (0.0005 mSv)
  • Eating a banana = 1/100,000th rem (0.0001 mSv)


  • Natural radiation in the human body = 1/25th rem (0.4 mSv) a year
  • Terrestrial background radiation = 7/250th rem (0.28 mSv) a year
  • Cosmic background radiation = 6/250th rem (0.24 mSv) a year
  • Living near a coal power station = 3/100,000th rem (0.0003 mSv) a year
  • Living near a nuclear power station = 1/100,000th – 1/1000th rem (0.0001 – 0.01 mSv) a year

(From The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine, 1984 — my own working copy from my first job.)

What’s the fallout level?

  • Chernobyl*** gave out 300 sieverts (30,000 rems) per hour after explosion
  • Fukushima No. 3 reactor blowout reportedly emitted 1,000 millisieverts (1 Sv or 100 rems) per hour six days afterwards

*** Pronounced ‘cherna-bill,’ okay? It’s not ‘cher-noble.’

The allegedly higher-than-usual radiation levels detected by the Hong Kong Observatory (i.e. meteorological office) is seriously way lower than any of the figures above.

Heaven help us, but Hong Kong’s geological profile is mainly of granite and igneous rock formations. We get more rems/sieverts in background radiation from our granite flooring tiles or jade bracelets than the stuff flying across the skies from Japan right now. C’mon, people! Get with it!

* * *

First off, essential goods from abroad aren’t coming through into Hong Kong. We are a place that imports over 90% of our daily essentials. Right now, Japan has got broken-down logistics and broken-down everything else. This must be the bad karma for our not hosting more Japanese companies here, or maybe for relocating our industrial and food-processing base to mainland China. Ain’t karma a bitch.

Learn to ask questions

Second, the local press has been heavy on the drama and light on facts. Nearly every single TV news broadcast is littered with erroneous reporting and facepalmingly brain-damaged questions to the knowledgeable. In other words, the media are exactly the ones fuelling the hysteria about Japanese radioactive fallout paying a visit to Hong Kong. Which leads to hoarding. Which leads to even more news. Which lead to more of the same. A vicious circle. This must be the bad karma The Naked Listener has been hearing about for our massive imports of Japanese food and goods or our penchant for learning Japanese. Ain’t karma a bitch.

* * *

Just this morning, our esteemed civil servants finally says the situation in Japan is “very serious” and are “urging” (i.e. advising) Hongkongers against travelling there.

Regardless of the seriousness of the Japanese situation, if that’s our official position (as coming from the mouths of senior civil servants), then it’s understandable why this lady had this to say:

“I don’t understand why our government still hasn’t issued a black travel alert to all of Japan.”

(caller studying in Tokyo on a Hong Kong radio show, 17 March)

Like an earlier Naked Listener post said, the government doesn’t want to jeopardise its tax revenue from travel agencies. With a black travel alert, travel agencies are obligated to refund travel fares paid by cancelling customers. Refunds ultimately mean less tax. As it stands now, tour operators are not legally required to refund anything for trip cancellations. Shameless.


© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2011.

12 Responses to “Siege mentality taking hold, strangely enough”

  1. Guus said

    You speak my thoughts Rob. Can you believe that even some people in Singapore are getting worried. 7 hours flight from Tokyo!

    Sadly, the facts don’t seem to matter when the emotion of fear takes hold. Shame also on Japanese authorities for not creating more perspective on the issue and providing good graphics, info to the press.


    • Oh, I see, the hysteria is travelling to Singapore now, has it? I think more people are going to die from being trampled in salt riots than from any radioactive fallout, quite honestly.

      Actually, I cut the Japanese quite a bit of slack about this. They’ve really got their hands full this time. The Japanese authorities are trying really hard to keep citizens calm and orderly thinking as they usually are. The power stations might not have been transparent but the government has been very transparent. The problem as I see it is the news outside reporting on what’s inside in Japan – especially by the incredibly lazy American TV news networks, like Fox News, which came up with some unbelievable fabrications about what’s happening that must have been induced by LSD.


    • Guus said

      You have a point there. It also doesn’t help that the technical / numbers people among journalists are few and far between. Many chose journalism because they didn’t cut it in physics class.


  2. YT said

    Yup, this insanity has reached the United States. There’s news of people hording potassium iodide and buying Geiger counters. The fear mentality on the west coast seems particularly strong since we’re closest to Japan. Nevermind there’s something called the Pacific Ocean separating the two countries.


    • You can bet, in the heat of the moment, some idiot will make a horrible mistake and accidentally sell KCN (potassium cyanide) pills. I don’t know how many of us are old enough to remember the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, but I was still in the UK then. It was so funny seeing Americans scrambling all over the place and flying over to the UK to escape the fallout. Then the fun and games went sour when news came that KCN nearly got sold.


  3. Oddly enough the western world (or at least the more affluent parts of it) have been suffering from a lack of iodine in their diets as they eat too little fish and too much sea salt which hasn’t had any iodine added to it. The result is a surge in the number of cretinous children being born as iodine is vital to brain development in unborn children. Of course if you have got radiation sickness it’s too late to dose up on iodine- it will probably kill you faster than the radiation!
    It isn’t surprizing really that there has been a rush on salt and iodine- the media has everyone so hyped up about the latest thing to worry about that we should have seen it coming really. If the media didn’t spend so much time distracting us we might begin to ask the really important questions and no government anywhere wants that. Free thinking (and for that matter, clear thinking) people have always been a threat to the status quo.


    • thenakedlistener said

      You’re absolutely right about the iodine thing – at the moment of truth, it’s usually too little too late. Plus the fact that the large amounts of processed stuff we eat don’t have enough iodine (and, frankly, nutrition), ergo, birth defects.

      Anything resembling hysteria in Australia? We only get one Australian TV channel on cable here in Hong Kong, and the news sounds pretty sanitised. It’s called “Australia Network” and I kind of suspect it’s not a real TV channel but a combo of different Australian TV programmes put out by some government-subsidised public broadcasting franchise.


  4. As far as I can see there has been no reaction to any possible nuclear fallout here in Australia- I can buy as much salt as I want to and there has been no change to the stock on the shelves at supermarkets and other produce outlets. We are very far away to the south here and Australia is abundant in its food production so I wouldn’t imagine that there will be any panic here at all.
    As to Australian TV- it does tend to be very generic and to present only what the broadcasters deem to be palitable to local viewers. Interestingly enough, because of the large immigrant population here there is a national ethnic station, SBS, which imports news broadcasts from around the world in many languages. The news presented in these programs is usually quite different to that shown by the domestic channels. Of course American networks dominate TV here as everywhere. If the Japanese fallout does make life intolerable in HK you could always relocate to a place on the beach in Bondi where you can soak up as much solar radiation as you like (and have plenty of salt in the cupboard as well!).


  5. Woman said

    Up here too in western Inner Mongolia, lots of people panicking. Reminds me a little of the Spring of 2003 and SARS… the whole vinegar boiling thing. Where the price of vinegar sky rocketed.

    I like your blog!!


    • Western Inner Mongolia, huh? The TV news has just started reporting that Japanese foodstuffs arriving in Taiwan and some other countries contain trace radioactivity, so we can be sure the hysteria of boiling food will go into overdrive. BTW, I like your blog too (and have subscribed to it).


    • Woman said

      Ohhhh… my mother was telling me about that this morning in regards to buying items in Canada. I need not worry!!! I eat the night fertilised fruits and veggies and eat local meat. I cannot be bothered to try to buy imported stuff anymore.

      And I cannot wait (said with extreme sarcasm) to see what has happened in the West from all this… it will be an adventure!!!


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