(photo credit: URIA ASHKENAZY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The Haifa City Council convened an emergency meeting on Tuesday to address the public’s shock after preliminary results of a University of Haifa study indicated that exposure of pregnant women in the area to pollution from the petrochemical industry caused their babies to be born with heads 20 to 30 percent smaller than average.
As the meeting took place protesters held signs and chanted slogans outside.
A council member interrupted Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay’s speech to say “you have a ticking time bomb here,” as he held a sign resembling the chart Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed the United Nations in 2012 while warning against Iran’s nuclear program.
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman joined Gabbay, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, as well as one of the professors who wrote the report, released on Monday, in addressing the council.
The officials counseled patience.
“This issue is still in its infancy,” Gabbay said. “To hear that babies are being born at a higher risk than others is horrifying. We will wait patiently until the end of the study, as well as until the Health Ministry approves the study, and then decide what to do.”
Boris Portnov, a researcher involved in the study, said intermediate findings would be presented within the next few weeks.
“It is necessary to wait patiently. We are not talking about a matter of months, just a matter of weeks. We are at the last stages of an intermediate report with the initial findings of the study,” Portnov said.
Gabbay said his ministry is working transparently with the public to try to avert panic.
“There is not a day that goes by where I am not dealing with Haifa and I want to solve this problem,” he told the council. “But the solution starts with the public’s faith that this issue is being taken care of. If the public won’t think this way, then we have achieved nothing. It is necessary to deal with how the public feels. The value of transparency is the top priority.”
Litzman told another conference on Tuesday about child safety that he was sure that what was published in the media about the pollution story in Haifa “was not correct. We have to check the facts. Let’s be patient. We have to put the data in proportion without sweeping anything under the carpet.”
Later in Haifa, Litzman said that any findings have to be approved by his ministry as well as Gabbay’s.
“I am in favor of research; we have to do it. I am against hiding uncomplimentary findings. They have to published, and we have to correct things. But before the preliminary report was published, it should have been discussed with the relevant authorities – the Health and Environmental Protection ministries.
I and my professionals sat for hours with the researchers; they didn’t receive answers to all their questions,” he said.
“Even to this very moment, I honor everything that was said in the university’s report but from this point until we come to conclusions is a very far away.”
Zionist Union MK Yael Cohen Paran said earlier that she plans to propose the creation of a Knesset subcommittee to investigate what went wrong in Haifa.
“In the past two years, faced with the reports from epidemiologists and the shocking disease rates, it places a huge question mark regarding the government’s plans to treat