BEIJING // More than 2,100 kilometres from the nuclear crisis in Japan, worried shoppers in the Chinese capital are buying salt and iodine tablets in the hope these could cut the dangers from radiation.
While in mainland China radiation levels have not increased as a result of leaks from the stricken Fukushima plant, many residents fear the worst.
"I have heard so many people say there could be radiation in China," said Zhang Litian, 48, a state-owned factory employee who went away empty-handed after finding the Jian Mart supermarket in eastern Beijing had sold out of salt. Staff said the store ran out by 10am yesterday.
"I take it seriously. I'm afraid of it," he said. "It is a problem for Chinese people, the radiation from Japan."
Salt, usually less than two yuan (Dh1.12) for a 500g bag, is now being sold on the streets for five times as much.
The buying frenzy is being fuelled by the iodine that China adds to its salt. This substance can prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine, although experts believe the amounts in salt are insufficient to have a protective effect. Others have said they are buying salt because they fear future supplies could be contaminated by radiation.
Iodide pills are also proving popular.
"Almost 30 customers came here to ask for them," said Yang Shihui, 45, of the Jing Long Tang pharmacy in eastern Beijing.
The pharmacy has ordered hundreds more boxes of 24 pills, each retailing for 7.9 yuan. Yet, Ms Yang said, "it's stupid for people to buy these pills. The disaster is not a big problem for us".
Fears in the South Korean capital, Seoul, about 1,100km from the crisis-hit regions of Japan, have also led to residents buying iodide tablets. The Korean Pharmaceutical Association yesterday advised against taking iodine supplements, warning residents they could risk hurting their thyroid.
North Americans have also been reported to be buying the supplements.
Lee Tinlap, an associate professor in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said iodine would be helpful for those "under immediate risk from radiation", but that does not include people in neighbouring countries.
"It will disrupt your normal thyroid metabolism," he said. "There's a limit to how much iodine you can take per day. You will get an enlarged thyroid."
While shoppers in China have been panic-buying, the national broadcaster, China Central Television, has told people how to safeguard themselves against radiation. The station said in the event of a scare they should wear face masks and gloves, avoid drinking contaminated water and take iodide pills, but only under a doctor's direction.
Tokyo has been in regular contact about the disaster at the Fukushima plant, a Chinese official said yesterday.
Yet even if the Japanese nuclear crisis develops into a worst-case scenario, experts say only a limited amount of radiation would spread long distances.
In the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, material spread far because the reactor contained graphite, which caught fire and carried particles into the upper atmosphere. That is not the case with Fukushima.
Perhaps it is no surprise people are anxious. There are several reasons why radiation causes more terror than other potential threats, said Nick Pidgeon, the director of Cardiff University's Understanding Risk Research Group in the School of Psychology.
It is invisible and unknown, so it worries people more than, say, the danger of being knocked off a bicycle. That it can cause cancer is another factor.
"Cancer is a quite uniquely feared state for many people and quite rightly," he said.
High-profile disasters in the past and the fact that early on, given its military applications, the nuclear industry tended to develop in a secretive manner, has fuelled mistrust and heightened anxieties, he said.
"When you take these things together, it's not surprising there's huge public concern."
The stress and panic caused by nuclear accidents can be worse than the threat from the radiation, according to Jim Smith, an earth and environmental sciences specialist at Portsmouth University in the UK.
"A key risk at present is public panic," he told the Reuters news agency from Chernobyl, Ukraine, where he has studied the effects of radiation.
Individuals exposed to fallout at Chernobyl suffered twice the normal level of anxiety, he said.
He put the increased risk of cancer for those involved in the Chernobyl cleanup at about one per cent, which should be put in perspective compared to the dangers of urban pollution or second-hand smoke. And he added the current crisis falls far short of Chernobyl.
"From what I understand, we're not in that kind of sphere or anywhere near it in Japan at this stage," he said.
Not everyone is worried. "People have bought so many bags of salt. It's useless," said Han Meili, a 20-something Beijing resident. "The authorities are going to handle this."