An ill wind keeps pupils at home in Seoul

6th May 2011 at 01:00
South Korea - Fears that rain is carrying radiation fallout from Japan's Fukushima power plant have sparked strange reactions

Japan may have stoically stood up to the worst that nature can throw at it, but its neighbours in South Korea are failing to show equal forbearance.

April showers have led to the widespread closure of schools as fears spread that the rain is carrying radiation fallout from Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

More than 100 schools in the South Korean peninsula summoned parents to collect their children or cancelled classes when they learnt that rain falling in the area might be contaminated.

Attendance rates plunged on rainy days as parents kept their children at home, even though officials insist that any radiation contained in the water poses no threat to health.

It is thought that the concerns may have been triggered by a warning from an education official in South Korea's Gyeonggi province to keep children indoors during rainfall.

Reports in the local press suggest that it is pressure from over-anxious parents that has led to the outdoor ban.

The Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS) says it has found traces of radioactive particles in air samples taken across the peninsula, but the South Korean government has repeatedly assured residents that the levels are so small they do not pose a threat to public health.

Even drinking two litres of such rainwater every day for a year would still not affect health adversely, according to KINS scientists.

But despite contradictory assurances from central government, children, parents and teachers are still wary. If the skies open, as they invariably do in April, many South Koreans now don previously unloved sou'westers in addition to carrying umbrellas. Children are ferried to and from schools by car, when once they walked.

Surprisingly for a nation that scores highly in international science test leagues, the word of government scientists is not always well regarded.

Only recently, a BSE scare sparked by imports of American beef had the nation's students holding all-night vigils on the streets before they were persuaded that the beef would not finish them off.

Remedies straight out of old wives' tales are being employed to counter the effects of radiation.

For a few weeks salt was almost impossible to find in shops, as concerned residents bought it in bulk in the vain hope that it would help absorb any harmful iodine coming their way.

Sales of various seaweed products, considered effective in protecting against radioactive particles, have also rocketed.

As the prevailing wind that has brought gamma-enlivened H2O to the shores of South Korea is from the West, rather than from the Fukushima nuclear plant 1,000km to the east, this might be a good moment for teachers to brush up the chapters in their dusty science books on cause and effect.

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