[ExI] Making [100 million] people smarter on the cheap.

Tom Nowell nebathenemi at yahoo.co.uk
Sun Dec 7 20:51:53 UTC 2008

When I was at Liverpool University, I had the good fortune to learn about the WHO and UNICEF backed project to iodise salt. It turned out the emeritus professor of the Tropical Medicine school who was lecturing was on the team who discovered the cause of Papua New Guinea's increasing rate of mental handicap. Ever since the 1950s, the rate of congenital mental problems had been skyrocketing in some areas of Papua New Guine. Not every group affected had had significant contact with westerners, causing some confusion as to what the cause was.
Various viruses and bacteria were excluded. Eventually someone thought of the historical example of cretinism, and checked the iodine levels in the local soils. Sure enough, the areas affected had very low iodine. But why had they not suffered such a high rate before? Why was increasing contact with the outside world affecting everyone?

 It turned out that the problem was people shipping in cheap salt. Traditionally, to make salt, the upland tribes went through a laborious process of burning particular leaves in salty springs to produce a small amount of rich, mineralised salt. When cheap table salt became available as in import, very few people bothered with the traditional method. The new salt didn't have iodine, and so communities became iodine deficient. As salt was widely used as a trade good, a community didn't have to have ever met a white man to purchase the white man's salt.

The problem was solved by banning the importation of non-iodised salt. This rapidly improved the situation. Since then, the WHO has backed micronutrient schemes for 2 substances globally - Iodine and Vitamin D (to prevent rickets).

Now, maybe a scheme to ban the sale of non-iodised salt might seem too heavy handed. If that isn't politically acceptable, you could just put a tax on it - by making people who want it search out the slightly more expensive alternative to what has become the new norm (iodised salt), you encourage the vast, uncaring mass of humanity to go by default to iodised salt.



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