Israeli Kids Low in Iodine; Desalinated Water Use Blamed

Health Ministry study shows concentration is 10 percent less than recommended, probably due to use of desalinated water

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
The Ashdod seawater desalination plant
The Ashdod seawater desalination plantCredit: Tomer Appelbaum
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The iodine concentration among children in Israel is 10 percent lower than the recommended concentration by the World Health Organization. This deficiency could impair cognitive and mental development, according to a new Health Ministry survey.

The significant cognitive impairment among children begins already in the fetal process, during the period of greatest vulnerability to the developing brain.

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The deficiency is apparently caused by the use of desalinated water, which doesn’t consist of iodine.

To compensate for the deficiency, the Health Ministry is seeking legislation that will require salt to be enriched with iodine, as is customary in many countries.

In recent years, the use of desalinated water has become very prevalent in Israel, especially in the central region. The Water Authority plans on expanding the use of desalinated water in the coming decades. Recently the construction of a large desalination facility was approved in the western Galilee and another one is planned south of Rishon Letzion, in addition to the existing one in the area.

In the desalination process, important elements are removed from the water, such as magnesium and iodine. A deficiency in iodine, which is absorbed by the body by food and drink, damages the hormone production in the thyroid, which could in turn hinder fetuses brain development and lead to a reduction of IQ. This effect has been viewed in several researches conducted in the world in areas of iodine deficiency.

A preliminary study conducted in the south of Israel already five years ago found iodine deficiency among children. Last year, the Health Ministry decided to expand the study to other regions with a biological monitoring program launched two years ago together with the Environment and Health Fund.

The program involves gathering urine samples from volunteers and checking them for traces of substances that affect health, such as environmental pollutants. The new study took urine samples from 100 children aged 4 -12 and samples from 197 adults, some of them women in child bearing ages.

The average urine concentration among the children was 86 microgram per liter and among the adults 60 microgram per liter, while the normal level should be 100 microgram at any age, according to the World Health Organization. Compared to 18 states in which the desalinated water consumption is especially high, Israel and Lebanon had the lowest iodine levels.

To compensate for the loss of iodine in the water, the World Health Organization recommended adding iodine to table salt. Numerous states such as Denmark, Spain, Chile and the UAE have adopted the recommendation. The number of states struggling with iodine deficiency dropped from 113 in 1993 to 28 in 2020.

Iodine enriched salt is sold in Israel, but the law doesn’t require it and only 11 percent of children use it. According to the Heath Ministry, most of the public is unaware of its advantages.

The discussions about the need for regulation making the sale of iodine enriched salt compulsory began at the beginning of the last decade but failed to reach an advanced stage. Five years ago the ministry issued instructions encouraging its consumption.

“We believe informative steps are not enough,” says Dr. Tamar Berman, of the health and environment department in the Health Ministry.

“We must advance legislation requiring iodine to be added to salt as is customary in the world, including in states like Bahrain, Tunis and Saudi Arabia,” she says.

Berman says the test sample in the last study may be small, but professionals believe it reflects the deficiency and the results make it necessary to take action.

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