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.
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.