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Please pass the salt. March 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood returned yesterday from a lovely long weekend in scenic Asheville, North Carolina. One of the things we enjoy when traveling is reading the local paper at the places we visit to help us transition to our new (if temporary) home.

But our friend Ben wasn’t prepared for the headline that confronted me in Thursday’s Asheville Citizen-Times: “WNC [Western North Carolina] residents make run on iodide pills.” Which is to say that the smart, liberal, avant-garde population of Asheville had depleted the city’s supply of potassium iodide (KI, in chemical shorthand) in a desperate attempt to save themselves from radiation fallout from Japan’s damaged nuclear reactors.

Now, Silence and I aren’t duct-tape-and-plastic, hide-under-your-desk types. In fact, our friends love to give us grief about what they refer to as our survivalist tendencies. And if a Krakatoa-scale volcanic eruption had damaged those nuclear plants and spewed radiation into the high atmosphere, we’d have been first in line for some iodide pills.

But we couldn’t quite understand why the good people of Asheville would think that tsunami-induced damage could send radiation past the Rockies, much less the Smokies. Even our government is only suggesting avoiding a 50-mile radius of the nuclear sites. Still, the panic rolled on. After the Ashevillians cleaned out the supplies of potassium iodide, they clamored for more. Health-food stores and natural pharmacies suggested that they buy seaweed products, since seaweed is naturally rich in iodine.

Let’s just say that Silence and I refrained from rushing to every sushi bar in Asheville to gulp down seaweed-wrapped sushi rolls in an attempt to protect ourselves from radiation. We thought the citizens of our favorite vacation spot were overreacting. Turns out, however, they were not alone.

When traveling, we also enjoy keeping up with news back home, so we subscribe to e-mail updates from our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. You can imagine our chagrin when Friday’s “Valley Business Buzz” update featured a story, “A New Kind of Panic Buying,” on how Lehigh Valley residents were snapping up potassium iodide pills as if they were M&Ms. Sheesh, our friend Ben remarked to Silence, it’s a wonder grocery shelves aren’t being stripped of iodized salt.

Clearly I spoke too soon, as Silence pointed out on Sunday, when Yahoo’s “Trending Now” section featured “China Salt Returns” in its top ten search items. Apparently, frantic Chinese had started a run on iodized salt in groceries across the country, despite government assurances that they were in no danger and that iodized salt wouldn’t help them in any case.

The “returns” part of the news bite was about how the panicked citizens, finally grasping that they’d overreacted, attempted to return their bazillion cartons of salt, only to be informed that groceries were only obligated to give refunds if merchandise was defective. Our friend Ben predicts that salt will finally overtake MSG in Chinese cuisine, by necessity. Salt-lovers that we are, even Silence and yours truly wouldn’t know how to use up the typical 50 packages of salt-per-family purchased by a panicked populace.

Getting back to basics, what do potassium iodide, iodine-rich seaweed, iodized salt, and the like have to do with radiation to begin with? Turns out, not a hell of a lot. One effect of nuclear fallout is an increase in thyroid cancer, especially among growing children. Taking potassium iodide pills for two weeks immediately after a nuclear incident can help prevent the occurence of thyroid cancer in children. Unfortunately, it doesn’t prevent any other form of radiation poisoning. And an overdose can lead to abnormal heart rhythms, vomiting and bleeding.

Our friend Ben hopes that the Japanese government is providing potassium iodide pills to families with young children in the 50-mile nuclear zone. Here in America, I hope that, rather than causing mindless panic, the threat of nuclear fallout finally makes families think about what they might do, and what they should do, in an emergency situation. Perhaps their emergency preparedness kit would include a two-week supply of potassium iodide pills for each family member, in addition to stores of long-keeping food and water, blankets, first-aid supplies, and the like.

But, having said that, our friend Ben is convinced that no stash of supplies on earth is as effective as good relations with your neighbors. It’s your fellow human beings who will help you, as you help them, survive a crisis, and who will help you rebuild afterwards. Whoever said “We’re all in this together” was a true far-seer. Know your neighbors, and stay in touch. And please, pass the salt.