Cambodia thought it had a handle on its scarcity of iodine, an element critical for humans (and one not made naturally by the body) to make thyroid hormone. The country had long struggled with the lack of iodine in its soil, which at one point in the late 1990s resulted in goiters in 17% of its population, per UNICEF. The solution: iodizing table salt, a cheap way to boost citizens' iodine intake. But as the New York Times reports, national efforts to iodize table salt started disintegrating in 2010, and in 2011 a major event happened more than 2,600 miles away that had unexpected consequences for the country's iodine deficiency dilemma: the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which caused once-affordable iodine to spike in price globally and decimate specifically Cambodia's salt industry.
The iodizing initiative had already started to erode before 2011, as the government and salt producers let things fall through the cracks. After the tsunami, things worsened: There was already a dearth of iodine due to the 2008 recession, and the natural disaster in Japan, which produces about a third of the world's iodine, exacerbated it. Add cheaper, non-iodized Vietnamese salt in, as well as the fact that iodine was being scooped up by higher-paying parties such as pharmaceutical firms, and iodized salt in Cambodia fell by the wayside. Now suffering the effects: the country's kids, 2,300 of whom, when tested in 2014, showed a 30% drop of iodine levels in urine compared to 2011. Iodine Global Network Director Jonathan Gorstein tells the Times efforts must be taken anew to halt the deficiency and the "pattern in which success leads to backsliding." (Iodine deficiency in pregnancy can lower a baby's IQ.)