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No you’re not in control; get over it

Posted: March 21, 2011 - 8:00pm  |  Updated: March 22, 2011 - 6:28am

Will rushing out to buy bags of table salt, then shoveling handfuls of it down your throat, really protect you from an impending Japanese nuclear meltdown?

It might make you feel better for a few seconds, until you stroke out.

Even so, some folks in China got the strange idea that eating several pounds of iodized salt at one sitting could help shield them from radiation emitted by the nuclear reactors damaged in the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

The salt-as-savior rumors raced through China, feeding the Chinese salt-panic, spiking the price by a factor of six, forcing salt purchase limits and driving store employees crazy.

“Salt is not available in any of the shops,” moaned Dong Linhua, a 57-year-old factory worker in Shanghai, according to one of the gazillion news reports on the Chinese salt panic.

“There have been many people queuing to buy iodized salt in our store,” said a clerk in Guangzhou. “We have to control it. One client can only buy two bags of salt.”

But salt isn’t some magic powder or mystical shield. And it won’t stop the Japanese nuclear reactors from getting you.

There is real life-and-death science going on in Japan as engineers work on those damaged reactors, risking radiation poisoning.

And there is no magic or mysticism in the reactors. The engineers who’ve been working on them wear those thin suits, and there is gamma radiation all around, and for days they’ve been trying to do what they can.

But then there is that other kind of science. Not real science but the belief in science as magic. For some it’s salt. For others it’s a little pill.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s also human nature, and human nature is often ridiculous.

It is ridiculous to think that we can exert control over the world, that if we take certain precautions, take that certain pill or eat handfuls of salt, we can somehow protect ourselves from disaster.

We know this is false, but knowing and believing are two different things. And even if we laugh at the salt eaters and the pill takers, many of us go through our lives thinking we can exert our own kind of control, that we can somehow shield ourselves and our loved ones from danger.

Then the world insists on reminding us that we control nothing. And we realize in those last seconds how powerless we truly are.

It could be a car crossing the yellow line. It could be a tsunami. Or it could be cancer.

And lest we begin to feel superior to the salt-panicked Chinese, what about Americans rushing to buy up every potassium iodide pill they can grab?

It started when U.S. Surgeon-General Regina Benjamin foolishly announced earlier this week that buying potassium iodide was “a precaution” against radiation.

She probably didn’t mean to create a panic, but that’s exactly what she did, and many from Hawaii to the West Coast — and even some here in the Midwest — rushed out to get the pills.

Other government health officials were forced to “clarify” her comments, saying the pills could even be harmful if taken by people with thyroid problems and some allergies.

It certainly doesn’t help that in almost every news photo, the surgeon general is wearing that ridiculous dress uniform, the one with the shiny sash that makes her look as if she’s in a production of “HMS Pinafore.”

Even President Barack Obama on Thursday said people on U.S. soil do not need to take any precautions beyond staying informed.

“We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it’s the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific,” the president said.

Then he repeated it.

So put your money away. You don’t need to buy those potassium iodide pills. You don’t need the extra salt. And you don’t need that Geiger counter.

But it wouldn’t hurt to pray for the thousands upon thousands of people who have died in Japan, for those who are living with the disaster and, especially, for those nuclear engineers in the damaged Japanese reactors, wearing those thin suits, doing what they can.

• Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him e-mail at jskass@tribune.com.

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