How a Tsunami in Japan Endangered Children in Cambodia
New York Times | 15 May 2017
The tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, now threatens the developing brains of children in Cambodia — but not for reasons that were ever expected.
Cambodia has long struggled with iodine deficiency. The element is crucial to early brain growth: When pregnant women and their infants have low levels, the children can permanently lose 10 to 15 I.Q. points. Iodine deficiency is considered the world’s leading preventable cause of mental impairment.
But there is a cheap, easy remedy: iodized salt. As salt is cleaned and packaged, potassium iodate may be sprayed on it, normally at a cost of only a dollar or two per ton.
That means, nutrition experts say, that the I.Q. of entire nations can be raised 10 points for just a nickel per child per year.
Cambodia was making great progress against iodine deficiency until 2011, according to a report published in 2015 by the Iodine Global Network, a public-private partnership combating the deficiency.
Like many countries with regular flooding, Cambodia’s soil has little natural iodine, so its crops also contain little. In 1997, according to Unicef, almost a fifth of its population had goiters — swollen thyroid glands in the neck that indicate serious deficiency, which can also cause dwarfism and cretinism.
In 1999, with help from donors, Cambodia began iodizing table salt. In 2003, the Parliament and king made it mandatory. Dozens of small producers in Kampot and Kep provinces who made salt by evaporating seawater formed a cooperative that was given potassium-iodate spraying machines.
From 2000 to 2011, use of iodized salt rose to 70 percent from 13 percent of households, according to a 2015 study in the journal Nutrients. Market sampling in 2008 found only 1 percent of salt with no detectable iodine.
But then things began falling apart.
In 2010, Unicef and other donors turned responsibility for iodination over to the government and salt producers. Enforcement grew lax, and spraying machines that broke went unrepaired, according to a recent VOA News article.
Then in 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the global price of iodine tripled. The price increase had multiple causes, said Roland Kupka, a Unicef micronutrients expert.
Global iodine stocks were already low because of the 2008 recession. A third of the world’s iodine is produced by Japan’s natural gas drillers, who extract it from brine pumped from coastal wells.
The catastrophe damaged wells, set refineries ablaze and sharply cut electricity output. Adding to the problem, the release of radioactive iodine from the Fukushima nuclear reactor set off panic buying of protective potassium iodide pills, especially in the western United States. Prices briefly reached 50 times their normal levels.
Raw iodine prices remained high for two years, forcing the Indian companies that make potassium iodate to plead for donor help. Iodine is also used in X-ray machines, LCD screens and pharmaceuticals. Iodized salt accounted for only a tiny market share, so producers could not match other buyers’ bids.
The whole global iodination effort “may be put in jeopardy unless action is taken,” a 2011 report prepared for Unicef said.
High prices also wreaked havoc on Cambodia’s salt industry. Noniodized salt from Vietnam was half the cost, so it was smuggled in. Salt meant for the Kampot co-op was sold without iodination.