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Chinese hoard salt out of radiation fears

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Chinese shoppers crowd a shop in an effort to buy salt in Lanzhou, northwest China's Gansu province on Thursday.

BEIJING – China is in the midst of a salt rush.

Despite the Chinese government’s effort to educate the population and reassure them they will not be exposed to radiation from the nuclear plant in northern Japan, many fearful Chinese have come to believe baseless rumors that the iodine in salt could save them from radiation sickness – so they are hoarding iodized salt.
 
The frantic buying has left grocery shelves empty of salt in China’s coastal provinces, just across the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea from Japan. But the panic is spreading quickly westwards to the country’s inland where salt sales are catching up at a crazy speed.
 
“April Gourmet,” a chain supermarket frequented by Beijing’s expatriate community, told NBC News that its salt supply was sold out as of Thursday morning.  “I’m not sure when we’ll have salt again because our suppliers’ stocks have been sold out, too and now the price is higher. Even the soy sauce is sold out by customers who worry they won’t have salt for cooking,” Ms. Zhao, a public relations manager for the store said in a phone interview.


“Merry Mart,” another big Chinese supermarket chain favored by older Beijingers, also reported that all the salt was sold out.
The spike in demand may be due to the misunderstanding of reports that note the thyroid gland is susceptible to radioactive iodine – just one of several types of radiation that could be produced by the crippled reactors – and that potassium iodide tablets can block the radioactive iodine if taken before exposure.

STRINGER SHANGHAI / Reuters

A policeman tries to maintain order as residents line up outside a salt wholesale market to buy salt after it was sold out at local supermarkets in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China on Thursday.

Salt containing iodine, however, would not shield against the radiation, medical experts say, adding that there was no reason for alarm in China, which is thousands of miles away from the damaged reactors.
 
On Taobao.com, China’s largest online business-to-business platform, some sellers from coastal provinces are even promoting their products by advertising, “Buy one, get one bag of salt free.” On the Sina microblog, a Twitter-like message sharing site, “salt” has become the most frequently discussed word and people from all over the country are reporting on how the panic buying has caused shortages in their hometowns.

Meantime, nuclear scientists have repeatedly explained on TV that even if a nuke explosion did take place, the level of radiation that could spread to China’s coastal cities would be diluted to a minor extent and simply taking salt would not help preventing damage.

Fang Zhouzi, a Beijing-based scientist famous for educating the public about scientific facts, wrote in his microblog that “you’d have to take 5-13 pounds of salt to have enough iodine to resist the radiation.” The Chinese government has also set-up telephone hotlines and web sites that address the public’s concerns about possible radioactivity from Japan.
 
The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country's economic policy agency, has also warned consumers about price gauging and has encouraged them not to give into the fear mongering. "Don't believe rumors, don't spread rumors, and don't panic buy," said the NDRC in an emailed statement, Reuters reported.

LIU JIN / AFP - Getty Images

People get bottles of soy sauce, which contains iodine, from the supermarket after salt sold out due to panic buying in Beijing on Thursday.

Still, the Chinese government’s education efforts seem to have done very little to deter people’s determination to hoard salt. News keep pouring in about how salt is sold out everywhere, and the China Salt Industry Corp., China’s biggest state-owned salt producer, continues to promise citizens a stable market will be back soon and that therea are ample reserves.
 
Meantime, China announced on Wednesday that it will readjust and amend mid- and long-term development plans for nuclear power. The State Council announced that approval for all new nuclear power plants, including those in preliminary development, will be temporarily suspended until safety standards are revised and strengthened.