24 October 2011

Just the right amount: a new process of iodising salt in Thailand

Sho Maw, a 33-year-old worker at the Petchsakorn Salt Factory in Samut Sakorn Province, spends hours each day spraying and hand-mixing potassium iodate into some 500 kilograms of salt. © UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha
Story by Nattha Keenapan

(The story was published in the Bangkok Post newspaper on 24 October 2011)

BANGKOK – Despite spending hours spraying and hand-mixing potassium iodate into some 500 kilograms of salt each day, Sho Maw, a 33-year-old worker at the Petchsakorn Salt Factory in Samut Sakorn Province, has never been certain that each pack of iodized salt she has sold over the past few years contained the proper amount of iodine.
Sho Maw is not alone with this problem. About 90 per cent of salt producers in Thailand, a country which produces some five million tons of salt per year, simply do the same thing in their iodization process – spray potassium iodate on salt and mix it in by hand. Most are small salt producers whose salt, when tested by health officials, often showed inconsistent iodine levels. Some of the batches tested contain no iodine at all.

Iodine is an important micronutrient needed for the production of hormones that have many functions in the body, all of which are essential for optimal physical and mental development. When the diet contains insufficient iodine, the thyroid gland cannot make enough of this hormone to satisfy the body’s needs. The lack of sufficient iodine in the Thai daily diet, and the long-term deficiencies this causes, has received a great deal of media and public attention over the past year, especially on how iodine deficiencies may be associated with the worrying decline in the intelligence quotient (IQ) levels of Thai children.

Late last year, at the urging of UNICEF and other development partners, the Thai government adopted new legislation requiring all salt for human consumption and salt used in food processing to be iodized. Under the new law,  which took effect on  January 1 this year,   producers will be required to ensure their salt contains an iodine level of 20-40 ppm (parts per million) as recommended by the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

“The new regulations show Thailand’s commitment to solving the problem of iodine deficiencies in the country, and salt producers will be required to abide by them,” said Pornthida Padthong, UNICEF Thailand’s Salt Iodization Project Coordinator.  “But to ensure that all salt has the correct level of iodine, producers will need to move from hand mixing potassium iodate into their salt to using salt iodization machines that can provide precise amount of iodine.”
The prototype salt iodization machine developed by the King Mongkut Ladkrabang with support from UNICEF. The machine provides an accurate and consistent level of iodine to a batch of salt.  © UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit Perawongmetha

Iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) are both a decades-long health problem in Thailand as well as a threat to the nation’s human resource and competitiveness, Pornthida noted.

According to Ministry of Public Health, which recently surveyed nearly 73,000 students, about 6.5 per cent of the students had IQ levels lower than 70 and suffered from “intellectual disability”.   In addition, the survey found Thai children have an average IQ level of 98.59, which is below the global median of 100.

IDD are considered the single most common cause of preventable mental retardation and brain damage in the world. While IDD can rob infants of up to 10-15 IQ points, less than 30 per cent of pregnant women in Thailand consumed adequate levels of iodine in 2010, according to a Ministry of Public Health survey. Iodine deficiency in mothers during pregnancy can hinder the development of their foetuses, and can result in miscarriages, stillbirths and other complications.  The consequences of IDD also include cretinism, poor school performance, reduced intellectual ability, impaired work capacity and lower productivity in adults throughout life.

Wimol Puangkijja, 63, owner of the Petchsakorn Salt Factory, said salt producers have no choice but to stop the traditional hand-mixing iodization method. Although Wimol will need to invest in a salt iodization machine, he said the machine will help increase the quality of iodized salt and make iodization process more efficient.

“My workers will like the machine because their work will be less time-consuming and less tiring,” said Wimol. “We have to adjust to the new regulations, but we will also have to adjust the salt price too.”
Like all other salt producers, Wimol will have another year to prepare for the change and select a salt iodization machine that fits their production capacity.

Last year, UNICEF supported the King Mongkut Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMIT) in developing a salt iodization machine as a model for salt producers. The machine, which is made of high quality stainless steel, provides an accurate and consistent level of iodine to a batch of salt.  It also helps eliminate the accumulation of moisture in salt, which is a common problem during the salt iodization process.

To help small salt producers and ensure the production of quality of iodized salt, the previous government has agreed to provide a 32.4 million baht subsidy for the production of another 216 salt iodization machines by KMIT.  Under the plan, salt producers will have to pay half of the actual cost of the machines, which run from about Baht 300,000-400,000 each.

Pranom Lertcharoenbundid, owner of a salt factory in Bangkok which produces about 326,000 kilograms of iodized salt a month, said the new regulation is being strictly enforced and provides for increased penalties for violations. However, in order to help salt producers to adjust to the new regulations, a one year grace period on enforcement of the regulations has been granted.  Starting January 1 next year, salt producers will be fined
50,000 – 80,000 baht if their salt fails to contain iodine within the required level of 20-40 ppm.

“In the past, health officials came once a year to give advice on the iodization process, but things will be much stricter in the future,” said Pranom adding, that the new regulations will likely put many small salt producers out of business. “But I’m proud to be producing such an important product like iodized salt.”

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