US/World News

Millions of Israeli children said at risk of stunted development, possibly from desalinated water

By Andrew Tobin

(JTA) – Israel’s first-ever national survey of iodine levels in the population revealed widespread deficiencies, which could mean millions of children are at risk of stunted development.

The survey, whose unpublished results were presented last week to endocrinologists in Ramat Gan, found that 62 percent of school-age children and 85 percent of pregnant women have iodine levels below the World Health Organization minimum.

According to the researchers behind the survey, the numbers are among the highest in the world and signal a major national health problem likely related to Israel’s world-leading use of water desalination.

“We could be talking about a significant detriment across the population,” Dr. Aron Troen, a nutritional neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who helped lead the survey, told JTA. “For anyone below the minimum level, you may lose 7 to 10 to 12 IQ points, which translates into a huge decrease in GDP due to reduced productivity. Even mild iodine deficiency can limit intellectual development, and mild to moderate deficiency has been linked to decreased cognitive performance. In the womb or early childhood, iodine deficiency has been shown to impair brain development and in severe cases cause physical malformation, dwarfism and intellectual disability.”

Researchers from Hebrew University, Maccabi Healthcare Service, Barzilai University Medical Center in Ashkelon and ETH Zurich in Switzerland collaborated on the survey, which analyzed urine samples from 10,123 school-age children and 1,074 pregnant women. They found similar results among Israeli Arabs, secular Jews and Orthodox Jews.

Based on their findings, the researchers called on the Israeli government to mandate the addition of iodine to salt or other foods, as do many other countries, including the United States. They said the change would be easy, inexpensive and have potentially large public health benefits. In the meantime, Israelis can change their diets, including by seeking out iodized salt, which is hard to find in Israel.

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