In hindsight, and with mounting evidence that wind-blown radioactive dust poses no public health risk on this side of the Pacific, it’s easy to mock the paranoia of those fellow Americans who immediately after hearing about Japan’s nuclear crisis ran to their nearest pharmacies and snatched up entire supplies of potassium iodide. Um, overacting much? And did you hear the one about the Great Chinese Salt Panic? Thousands of people throughout that country stocked up on iodized salt, even though you’d have to consume several pounds of it in one sitting for it to have the effect of blocking radioiodine from your thyroid. Simmah down now, people! And what about those silly Russians who made a run on local kelp supplies? Morons.
Or maybe not. We science journalists have a tendency to take the perspective of the experts we interview – those nuclear engineers, epidemiologists and health physicists whose close relationships with numbers and units of measurement allows them to say with confidence that 0.03 becquerels of radiation in a liter of milk is really nothing to worry about. But my thinking shifted a bit last week after talking to risk communication expert Peter Sandman for a post about the Japanese government’s bungled PR efforts. He made me think that perhaps self-preservation isn’t all that moronic.
“People want to do something so they feel more efficacious, so they feel more in control,” said Sandman when I asked him about hoarding iodine. “It sounds like it’s probably not necessary, and it’s certainly disobedient since the government is saying don’t do it. But it’s not harmful, it’s not distorting their lives and it’s giving them some sense that if the government is wrong and the experts are wrong and it turns out worse then they say it’s going to turn out, I’ll have an ace in the hole. I don’t think that’s stupid.”
Sandman also had an important note on semantics. In the news, you’ll often see the run on potassium iodide described as a panic.
“That’s not real panic,” Sandman told me. In the field of risk communication, he said, the word panic is reserved for harmful behavior that happens when people are too upset to think straight. They are so caught up with sudden, uncontrollable fear, they do things they would never do if they had their wits about them. Said Sandman: “It’s not panic to go to the store and buy some iodine. It’s panic if you’re in such a hurry to get to the store that you run over your grandmother.”
Which is good to know as I read that radioactive iodine has now been detected here in New York. I know I’m not at risk. But I also know I’m not panicking or being stupid when I reach for the bag of kelp chips.