Prof. Yona Amitai: Is Desalinated Water a Health Hazard?

Underscoring the risk of consuming desalinated water devoid of magnesium, BIU Prof. Yona Amitai, a public health expert, recommends adding the mineral to drinking water in order to thwart fatal heart disease.

Warning: Consuming desalinated water may be hazardous to your heart!

That, in fact, is the conclusion of a joint Israeli study conducted by researchers from BIU and Sheba Medical Center (Tel Hashomer). "In recent years, as desalinated water has begun to be widely used, there has been a higher death rate in hospitals in desalinated-water areas than in those in other regions," explains Prof. Yona Amitai of the BIU Dept of Management, noting that no significant difference between death rates in these hospitals existed prior to the use of desalinated water. The study is a part of a PhD thesis by Meital Shlezinger.

Prof. Amitai, who worked for decades as a senior pediatrician at the Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, joined BIU in 2011, having completed his post doc in Toxicology and Pharmacology at Boston Children's Hospital.

Amitai is a world renowned expert in pediatric toxicology, who has won numerous awards and acknowledgments, such as the Israeli Ambulatory Pediatric Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Cavaliere dell'Ordine della Solidarieta Italiana, bestowed by the President of Italy.

He was president of the Israel Society of Toxicology and the Israeli Ambulatory Pediatric Association, and chaired the European Confederation of Primary Care Pediatricians (ECPCP).

For Israel, a global leader in the desalination of seawater (DSW) that news is the cause for some genuine concern. DSW accounts for about 70% of the drinking water consumption among Israelis. That means that a significant swath of the local population is drinking tap water with very low magnesium (Mg) content, which can cause adverse health effects, and even increase risk for heart diseases and risk for death.

Presenting at the recent Environment and Health Fund Conference in Tel Aviv, Amitai delineated the importance of magnesium to human health and the implications for sea water desalination.

Referring to the World Health Organization Report on Drinking Water (2009), he explained that Mg is critical for energy production, the synthesis of proteins and nucleic acids, the regulation of vascular tone, and for insulin sensitivity. A deficiency in magnesium means a high risk for hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and colon cancer. While the optimal daily Mg intake is 300 (woman) - 410 mg (man), Israelis, on the average, only ingest between 228-270 mg per day. He quoted the WHO Guidelines for Drinking-Water Quality (2011), which states that the contents of magnesium in drinking water may contribute to the daily intake of Mg, and is mostly important for those who have marginal Mg intake. "The WHO recommendation to consider adding Mg to the desalinated seawater has tremendous implications for Israel," emphasized Amitai, noting that the Israeli Ministry of Health has recommended adding Mg to desalinated seawater at 20-30 mg/L.

Notwithstanding the high costs and the possible corrosion of water pipelines, Amitai believes that the benefits (including increased Mg content in produce and improved crop production) outweigh the disadvantages. "Given the increased use of DSW in Israel and the detrimental health effects from low water Mg content (i.e. death toll of over 500 people per year), the decision on adding Mg should not be delayed."

For more on Prof. Amitai click here.

Postscript: Following the Israeli media's report on the BIU research, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently directed the Health Ministry to proceed with the pilot plan to add magnesium to desalinated water.