New research says Israel’s iodine is cause for public health concern
Israel’s youth are potentially not realizing their full intellectual potential because of an iodine deficiency among both pregnant women and children.
A new study by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in partnership with Maccabi Healthcare Services found almost two-thirds of school-aged children and 85 percent of expectant mothers in Israel are iodine deficient.
Iodine deficiency causes hyperthyroidism and impaired neurological development among young children. Pregnant women who are iodine deficient have a 60 percent higher likelihood of having a child who registers at the lowest IQ level, according to the head researcher of the survey, Professor Aron Toren.
This was the first national iodine survey conducted in Israel. The World Health Organization recommends testing be done every five years. Urine of pregnant Israel women and school-aged children in all demographics were tested. More than a thousand school-aged children and a similar number of pregnant women participated in the survey, and the results showed a mild iodine deficiency across the board.
The World Health Organization says healthy iodine levels in school-aged children should register at a median 100-199 micrograms iodine/liter and 150-249 micrograms/liter for pregnant women. The median for Israeli children was 61 micrograms/liter and for pregnant women, it was 83 micrograms/liter.
“We (Israel) fall at the lowest decibel globally,” Toren said.
Iodine is a chemical element that supports the function of the thyroid. Iodine is reliant on location, and many parts of the world are iodine deficient because of geographic variables. The main way humans take in iodine is through diet, with foods such as milk and salt water fish containing high amounts of the mineral.
For areas of the world that lack natural iodine, an easy fix is to add iodine to salt. Toren used the Great Lakes region of the United States as an example of the success of iodized salt. The area was once known as “goiter belt”, goiters being a common disease associated with iodine deficiency. After a series of policy changes and increased awareness, iodine was added to salt, and the region no longer suffers from a deficiency.
Israel’s location, along with the lack of available iodized salt, changing trends in lifestyle and the desalination of seawater for public consumption are all possible reasons for the deficiency, according to Toren.
The Palestinian Authority addressed iodine deficiency within its borders several years ago, adding iodine to their salt. Overall, 160 countries provide their citizens with iodized salt. In Israel, iodized salt makes up three percent of salt sold and the cost far exceeds that of non-iodized salt.
“We should be able to do better,” Toren told The Media Line, “We’re just far behind the curve because we’ve ignored the problem.”
Toren said the causes of the deficiency are ultimately unknown because of the lack of systems that monitor public health. “Israel hasn’t had a very strong public health tradition,” said Toren, adding that he hopes his findings will begin a push toward regular surveys and increased awareness of the dangers of iodine deficiency along with the need for other micronutrients such as iron and vitamin D.
“There needs to be a change in policy in order to make a change,” Toren said, “Nutrition is an agenda.”
The research was conducted independently but Toren received a grant from the Israel Ministry of Health. Head of the Department of Nutrition for the Israel Ministry of Health, Dr. Ronit Endevelt, said she is looking at the research findings and working on the best course of action for introducing more iodine into Israel’s population.
The main focus is fortifying salt with iodine, and Endevelt said it is more complicated than some realize. The Department of Nutrition is checking out “which is the best product to fortify and how much to put in the salt,” Endevelt told The Media Line. Health problems can also occur from too much iodine in a person’s system, making it difficult to balance how much is needed for the general population.
Adding iodine to the diet of someone who has a deficiency can cause improvements after just two weeks said Endevelt,“It can change quite quickly,” she said.
Toren told The Media Line that the solution should be ‘available to everyone at the low cost of production,” because iodine deficiency, similar to other micro-nutritional deficiencies, affects those in lower socioeconomic status more severely than others.
Madison Dudley is a student journalist with The Media Line