Desalination: Hebrew University studies water in Israel

Israel’s increasing use of desalinated water is leaving many citizens lacking in an important trace element, iodine – and a new national study is now trying to really gauge the extent of the problem.

A scientific team from the Hebrew University has just started testing iodine levels at 50 sites in Israel amid concerns that iodine deficiencies could adversely affect citizens’ health.

The study was launched just weeks after a Health Ministry survey found that iodine levels in Israelis were much lower than recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO states that urine should contain 100 micrograms of iodine per liter, while the average for Israelis is 60 micrograms for adults and 86 micrograms for children. The international organization considers iodine, which the human body requires in small amounts, to be “an essential nutritional element” necessary for the synthesis and proper functioning of two thyroid hormones, T3 and T4.

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The Department of Health is concerned that its findings may indicate obstacles to children’s cognitive and mental development, and officials have decided to push for legislation requiring table salt to be fortified with iodine, as is already the case in several other countries .

“We are concerned because around 80% of Israel’s drinking water comes from desalination plants – desalination which we know lowers calcium levels, which can affect humans. And according to our investigations, the mineral water also turns out to be only in reduced quantities, ”said the times of Israel Professor Yona Chen, who directs the study at the Hebrew University.

A desalination plant in Ashkelon, 2005. Illustration. (Source: Edi Israel/Flash90)

“But iodine is very important for humans because it controls our metabolism significantly. It’s essential for the thyroid and other hormonal activity,” he continues.

Professor Yona Chen (courtesy of Professor Yona Chen)

He points out that iodine is one of the few minerals whose amount is reduced in deionized water. He notes that, unlike others, the exact iodine content in this type of water has been little studied.

“Adequate investigations into calcium have been conducted and the matter has been placed under government control, with procedures in place to increase calcium levels in desalinated water. Magnesium is also reduced by desalination and research has been done, although magnesium supplementation has not yet been required. We know less about iodine levels and there is no solution to increasing the amount of this trace mineral in water,” he said.

The new nationwide study will use an electronic device developed by Chen’s lab to test iodine levels — a tool he says is far more accurate than currently existing devices.

The study will take about six months, and the professor hopes to provide statistics that will enrich the debate about iodine and perhaps encourage the implementation of a solution that compensates for Israeli iodine deficiency.

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