The Haifa Municipality and the Health Ministry kept their distance on Monday from preliminary results of a University of Haifa study indicating that exposure of pregnant women in the Haifa area to pollution from the petrochemical industry caused their babies to be born with heads 20 to 30 percent smaller than average.
Early findings of the five-year study, which has been carried out for only one year so far, were revealed on Sunday night by Channel 2. The study, sponsored by the municipality and the Haifa-area Municipal Association, was financed by the petrochemical industries and the Israel Electric Corporation.
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav objected to the “premature” revelation of the study and demanded that the Environmental Protection Ministry expand the study to other municipalities, not only his city.
The Environmental Protection Ministry said the office believes that the amount of small particulate matter in the air is serious in the Haifa Bay area, so it took responsibility and is implementing a long-term plan to reduce the pollution.
Although the statistics revealed on Sunday “only reflect a quarter of the report as a whole,” Yahav pointed a finger at Haifa-area factories and refineries for being the source of pollution in the area.
“Factories cause the pollution, and their expansion has to be stopped. I’m amazed that three days ago, the government approved a 20% increase in their activities,” he said, adding that “we stand with environmental groups in a war against factory expansion.”
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon spoke with Environmental Protection minister Avi Gabbay on Monday morning about actions to reduce air pollution in the Haifa Bay area.
“We will not spare any resources on anything connected to public health and dealing with Haifa Bay,” Kahlon asserted. Since this Knesset first convened, the two ministries have invested unprecedented amounts in rehabilitating Haifa and the bay, he said.
According to the first quarterly report of the National Program to Reduce Air Pollution last year, there has been an 11% decrease in the amount of pollution in the air from the Haifa Bay area. By 2018, the reduction is due to fall to 50% compared to pollution levels in 2014, Kahlon said.
“We have to deal with damage to the environment dating back to the British Mandate that never received an adequate response from various Israeli governments. Unlike our predecessors, we have committed ourselves to residents of Haifa and the North, and the actions we have already taken prove our direction.”
Dr. Revital Goldschmidt from the Haifa branch of student- run NGO Green Course said: “The difficult data bears witness to the reality of disrespect for human life in Haifa at the hands of both national and local authorities.” She said it is inexcusable for children in the Haifa area to have to play on balconies where the air is “saturated” with carcinogens from nearby industrial zones.
She said the report should “shake the very foundations of the Haifa municipality, and the government authorities who are responsible for the health of the public and the environment.”
She expects Gabbay to harshen the stance in his ministry against additional facilities and factory expansion, and to present a formal document to planning committees on how to reduce pollution coming from factories, as well as the use of harmful chemicals.
Amit Bracha, executive director of Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) – Israel Union for Environmental Defense, said that the statistics from the report were not surprising.
“That being said, it is not possible to wait for the study to be completed!” he said.
“Serious steps to reduce pollution must be taken now. The Environmental Protection Ministry cannot tell people about the government’s plans to reduce Haifa bay pollution while at the same time supporting plans to expand activities at refineries.
He implored the government to use “every means at its disposal” to reduce factory emissions, and even to shut down factories if that is what’s needed.
“It’s up to the government and the Health Ministry to start putting residents’ health above the financial interests of polluting companies,” he said.
The Health Ministry said it did not finance the study and was not involved in it.
“The data have not yet been presented to professionals in the Health Ministry; when they are, we will study the data and express our position.”
Health Minister MK Ya’acov Litzman said later that the findings presented on TV were ‘worrisome, if they are correct.”
He added that he scheduled a meeting between professionals of his ministry and their counterparts at the Environmental Protection Ministry to discuss the details.
“It is clear that if the data are as publicized, we will together have to take immediate action,” Litzman said.
According to the TV report, the neighborhoods most affected by the pollution, because they are tangential to the petrochemical facilities and downwind from them are Kiryat Haim, Kiryat Bialik, the southeast part of Kiryat Tivon and the Carmel ridge on the side that faces the industrial area. In previous studies, the prevalence of lymphoma and lung cancer there has been found to be five times that of the national average.
But various health researchers disagreed on whether the supposed smaller circumference of heads of babies born in the polluted areas was significant or not.
The Channel 2 report claimed that the researchers working on the study had demanded to take soil samples from the area to test for possibly carcinogenic materials, but that the Haifa-area Municipal Association, which was among those paying for the research, refused.
Rambam Medical Center, Haifa’s largest hospital, said it was not aware of babies being born with smaller-than-average heads.
MK Dov Henin (Hadash), who chairs the Knesset’s social-environmental lobby, said that “the difficult data exposing disease in infants joins the information that is already well known to us about the scope of cancer and lung disease in the Haifa area.”
He called on the government to implement recommendations made in a report submitted during the previous Knesset, when Henin headed the subcommittee concerning planning and the environment in the Haifa bay. It detailed ways to cut emissions, stop the expansion of refineries, and called for the creation of a separate port solely for fuel.
MK Aymen Odeh (Joint List), who lives in Haifa, said that the report “showed once again that the government abandoned the public’s health for the sake of the special interests of the wealthy,” saying that the government gave up on the lives and health of Haifa residents, as well as the nearby villages.
“It is up to us to stand together, all of us residents, and prevent the advancement of these dangerous projects.
We won’t give up on our health and the health of our children.”