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HEALTH: Salt Could Have Fought Chernobyl Radiation

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Apr 19 2006 (IPS) - Properly iodised salt could have protected thousands following the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago, says a Unicef report.

The failure to iodise salt made children in the region particularly vulnerable to thyroid cancer, the report says.

Households in Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) comprising the former Soviet republics in the region have ”the world’s lowest percentage of households consuming iodised salt,” Angela Hawke from Unicef (United Nations Children’s Fund) told IPS on phone from Geneva.

That compares with about 49 percent of households consuming iodised salt in South Asia, and 86 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, Hawke said.

A diet without iodised salt made people in the region prone to thyroid cancer. ”If the thyroid is iodine-deficient, then in the event of a nuclear disaster it will capture the excess iodine generated,” Hawke said. ”That excess iodine capture will then affect the thyroid glands, especially in children.”

Thousands of children were so affected. Many children survived ”because thyroid cancer is fairly easy to treat,” Hawke said. ”The thyroid gland has to be removed, and hormones can be given to replace its functioning. The affected person would have to take tablets all their life. The condition is not life-threatening, but it’s not what you would want.”

Calling for universal salt iodization, Maria Calivis, Unicef regional director for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS) said in a statement: ”Amid all the other vast numbers – 400,000 people uprooted from their homes; five million still living in contaminated areas; 100,000 still dependent on humanitarian aid – it is too easy to overlook what is small: a drop of iodine costing just a few cents.”

Calivis added: ”For the 4,000 children in question, iodized salt could have made all the difference. Many would have been spared from thyroid cancer.”

Unicef said in a statement that the areas affected by Chernobyl were iodine deficient before the disaster, and are still iodine deficient today. Despite many efforts to get legislation passed on universal salt iodization in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, the issue is still being debated.

”After twenty years, there can be no excuse for further delay,” said chess grand master Anatoly Karpov, Unicef regional ambassador. ”Universal salt iodization is the most effective way to ensure that every child gets enough iodine. It is also the cheapest way – costing only 4 cents per person, per year.”

Just one teaspoon of iodine consumed over the course of a lifetime ”can provide a high degree of protection against a range of iodine deficiency disorders,” he said.

Iodine deficiency disorders are the world’s leading cause of mental retardation and can lower the average IQ of a population by as much as 15 points, Unicef said.

Iodine deficiency is a serious danger to pregnant women and young children, it said. ”Even mild iodine deficiency during pregnancy can affect foetal brain development and, as a result, up to 2.4 million babies are born each year in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States with mental impairment.”

Unicef is urging the governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine to legislate for universal salt iodization, and is working with salt producers and the general public to raise awareness of the importance of iodine.

It is also backing the spread of reliable information for those affected by the Chernobyl disaster.

Unicef is supporting life-skills education in schools and communities in some affected areas to ensure that children and young people have good information on a range of issues from drug abuse to food safety.

”The health issues go beyond the direct impact of Chernobyl to the enduring psychological and health problems that resulted from sudden dislocation and the loss of livelihood,” said Calivis.

”Information equals power,” she said. ”Give people the facts and they can make informed decisions about their health and the health of their children.”

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