Iodine could have helped to spare many Chernobyl children from thyroid cancer

As the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl approaches, UNICEF says that the numbers of children who developed thyroid cancer could have been significantly lower if they had been consuming iodized salt in their daily diet at the time of the accident.

Calling for universal salt iodization, Maria Calivis, UNICEF Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS) noted: “For the 4,000 children in question, iodized salt could have made all the difference. Many would have been spared from thyroid cancer.

“And 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.”

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 (USI) 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 US 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.”

Iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) are the world’s leading cause of mental retardation and can lower the average IQ of a population by as much as 15 points. IDD is a danger to pregnant women and young children. 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.

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