Major study suggests desalinated water raising risk of heart disease

Presented with research gleaned from 178,000 Israelis, Health Ministry and Water Authority blame each other for failure to add vital magnesium to water

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Visitors top up their glasses with treated seawater at a desalination plant near Hadera, Israel. (Shay Levy/Flash90)
Visitors top up their glasses with treated seawater at a desalination plant near Hadera, Israel. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

Researchers who monitored nearly 200,000 people in Israel found that those who were drinking desalinated water showed an increased risk of heart disease as compared to those consuming natural water.

In a report published Tuesday in the Environmental Research scientific journal, researchers wrote that over a period of six years, 178,000 people from the Clalit Health Services, the largest healthcare provider in Israel, were monitored based on the type of water they drank. Half of the people studied were in areas supplied with desalinated water, while the rest were from communities using natural water.

They found a six percent increase in the incidence of heart disease among those drinking desalinated water, according to a Hadashot television news report about the study on Wednesday night. Some researchers even estimated the figure could be as high as 10%.

Prof. Yona Amitai of Bar-Ilan University, who co-lead the research, said the number is statistically significant and can be traced back to a failure to add magnesium to the desalinated liquid.

“Magnesium plays a vital role in the human body,” he said, which is “necessary and important for [its] proper operation.”

The Environment Ministry is set to promote the drinking of tap water. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a child drinking water. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Amitai noted the researchers ruled out other possible causes for the difference which might have influenced the results.

According to the Israel Water Authority, only 1% of desalinated water is used for drinking and adding magnesium as part of the production process would be very costly. However, some argue that even the water used for agriculture should be enriched with magnesium because it is absorbed by the produce that people eventually eat, the television report said.

While the idea of introducing magnesium into the desalinated water has been raised in the past, the Water Authority and the Health Ministry have failed to agree on a plan to implement the proposal.

An earlier investigation by Amitai in 2016 found higher mortality rates among heart patients in hospitals where desalinated water was used, compared to those in natural water drinking areas.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a Knesset Health Committee meeting on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The previous study prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to order Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to speed up a pilot project to add magnesium to the water.

According to the Hadashot report, thus far, the pilot project has yet to make any headway.

In a statement, the Water Authority said desalinated water has been approved by even the tightest of health regulations.

“The water in Israel, including the desalinated water, is a very good quality, and meets the most stringent requirements of the drinking water regulations,” the statement read. “The Health Ministry is authorized to decide if magnesium should be added to the diet of Israeli citizens.”

The Health Ministry, in a statement, said the addition of magnesium to the desalinated water is being held up by the Water Authority’s unwillingness to kickstart the process, apparently due to the high cost.

“The Health Ministry is familiar with the data and supports the immediate addition of magnesium to the water in order to ensure health of the public,” the ministry said. “To our regret, the Water Authority is deliberately raising difficulties to prevent the addition.”

Israel has five desalination plants along its Mediterranean cost, in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Palmachim, Soreq, and Hadera, which provide around 70% of the country’s domestic water. Several years of diminished rainfall has depleted the natural water resources to the point where they would struggle to maintain the country’s water demand.

Israel's desalination plant on the Mediterranean Sea at Ashkelon (Photo credit: Edi Israel /Flash90)
Israel’s desalination plant in Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

According to Hadashot television, cities and towns close to the plants receive 100% desalinated water. The further away the communities are, the more natural water is incorporated, with some of the Israeli public receiving purely natural water.

In 2011, the World Health Organization warned that essential minerals are lost from the water in the desalination process and recommended adding magnesium artificially.

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