A grain of salt

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am

I cringed when learning last week about the rush on salt to protect against the radioactive cloud that could be on its way from the crippled Japanese nuclear power plant. Childhood memories flooded back of being forced to lie face down in an inflatable swimming pool filled with sterilised water mixed with cups of the corrosive mineral. My mother had been told by my doctor that this would help alleviate the symptoms of my congenital eye condition, glaucoma. Immersing my face, eyes open, in the briny solution three times a day for five to 10 minutes each time, would work wonders, she had been assured.

It did not work - in fact, it could well have given me other serious eye problems had she not listened to my complaints and stopped the experiment after a few weeks. The salt made my skin dry and itchy, especially my eyes, lips and ears. I would spend the day scratching and whining about the burns and rashes that developed. All the time I had the taste of salt in my mouth; I have been adverse to it ever since, even to the point of dousing food I consider overly saline with sugar to rid it of the flavour.

Medical understanding of glaucoma has thankfully moved on since those uncomfortable days in the 1960s. An e-mailed inquiry at the weekend to my Hong Kong doctor confirmed my suspicions about frequently bathing eyes in salty water. It will not alleviate the high pressure caused by the condition, he wrote, and could have nasty side-effects. If the brine contains a higher concentration of sodium chloride than in body fluids, moisture could be sucked out of cells lining parts of the eye like the cornea and conjunctiva. Prolonged exposure may injure or even kill these cells.

About two decades later, my mother turned from salt advocate to alarmist. Scientists and doctors had determined that if eaten in excess, it caused high blood pressure, which led to strokes and brain damage. Strokes are prevalent in my family; I was advised to stay well away from salt. My exposure as a child to pools full of sodium chloride had sworn me off it anyway, but that did not stop my mother from harping on about avoidance.

With such a background, it was natural that I should flinch on hearing that people were hoarding the stuff and intended to gulp spoonfuls of it should radiation descend in harmful amounts. Potassium iodide tablets are apparently the prescribed method to ward off the thyroid cancer that eventually results, but they are not bountiful at the best of times. Some bright spark - or perhaps an importer - had determined that iodised table salt was the next best thing and had sent word around, most likely by mobile phone text message. Never mind that for it to have any effect, the seasoning would have to be consumed by the kilogram, with obvious dire health consequences.

Uncertainty breeds panic and that invariably leads to irrational behaviour. Fortunately, health secretary Dr York Chow Yat-ngok remains a respected member of the government and he has talked sense into the community. Salt is no longer in hot demand.

The saga has nonetheless left a bad taste in the mouth. For all Hong Kong's sophistication and education ideals, it is clear we are lacking critical thinking. Learning is not of much use unless assumptions are questioned. Priorities are as important, though.

Fear about radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant is understandable, although there is nothing to suggest that even in the worst-case scenario, health in Hong Kong is threatened. We are 3,000 kilometres away, after all - a distance that hugely dilutes fallout of particles. But why we are worried about airborne danger of such a sort, when we are swimming in a catastrophic one of our own making, is a mystery. As University of Hong Kong researchers recently pointed out, our air pollution is so severe that it accounts for three avoidable deaths a day, or 1,200 a year.

Those are not numbers to be ignored, yet we are not in a panic. Rumours are not flying about how best to keep safe and Chow has not offered any protective tips. In fact, our government, although only too aware of the problem, seems to be on a go-slow. That we are more concerned about what is happening in Japan shows just how little we understand our own ecological disaster.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post