To a first-time visitor to Switzerland, the Swiss may seem to have some strange habits. Watch them at traffic lights. To leave a car idling is against the law, so drivers switch their engines off at red lights.
"If you stand for more than 30 seconds, you must turn your engine off. After all, it is easier to replace the starter in your car than it is to fix polluted air," says Marc Kenis, an agronomist from the Jura canton.
Swiss air emission laws are years ahead of Israel's, where on scorching summer days one can find parked cars idling brazenly to keep the air-conditioning pumping.
Israelis literally choke themselves on fumes and wipe cancer-causing particulate matter produced by diesel and oil-burning fuel off their windows and children.
The Jerusalem Post questioned one of the country's top environmental advocates, Tzipi Iser-Itzik, about what is being done about air quality and environmental reform.
Air pollution, says Iser-Itzik, a lawyer and head of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), is undoubtedly the most important environmental hazard Israelis face today. Based on a 2003 survey, the IUED reports that twice as many people die from air pollution in cities like Tel Aviv and Ashdod than from car accidents.
The IUED is not just another green group that pulls sabotage stunts by college kids who smell like patchouli oil. The team of 30 lawyers and professionals know how to use the same language as decision-makers. The IUED's claims about air pollution and health are based on scientifically validated research. Because they are lawyers, they know when a corporation is breaking the law. The IUED is a polluter's nemesis and will do everything in its power to ensure that an offender pays.
The group works on behalf of the public, filing lawsuits against companies like Dead Sea Bromide (currently in the process of filing criminal charges) and the Nesher Har Tuv cement factory in Beit Shemesh that was burning tires - a case the IUED won.
The organization also has the will and the way to stand behind individuals who need legal help to fight an environmental crime.
The IUED does not accept any government funding, thus allowing itself autonomy in its decision-making process. Being outside the government does not, however, limit its access to statistics collected by the Environment Ministry - figures that describe the quality of the air we are breathing.
Ministry air testing units can be found throughout the country. On Jaffa's Sderot Jerusalem, near Rehov Erlich and a geriatric hospital, one of hundreds of similar units collects data on the city's air. About the size of a compact car, the unit tests for airborne particulate matter and chemicals and lets the ministry know that, about 75 percent of the time, the air quality in Israel is well below standards set by other developed countries, such as the US.
In Tel Aviv, the IUED reports that about 50% of airborne pollutants come from vehicles, and the remaining 50% from industry - especially the Reading power plant near the mouth of the Yarkon River.
Iser-Itzik confirms that the black film one sometimes sees covering chocolate bar wrappers in convenience stores - the same stuff you wipe off your windows and face - is particulate matter from diesel buses and the power station.
Particulate matter is harmful to our lungs in any amount.
"Polluted air is everywhere, whether you live in Savyon, the Jerusalem hills, or near the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. None of us are immune to its dangerous effects. If you are nearer to bus stations, then you are more exposed to pollutants; but these pollutants are blowing in the wind anyway, reaching rich and poor people all over the country," notes Iser-Itzik.
Residents of remote towns believe they are free from the pollutants found in cities. However, Iser-Itzik warns that the scent of fresh air may be deceiving. "The entire country faces above-average amounts of contaminants in the air," she emphasizes.
Commonly found contaminants include sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, ozone, and particulate matter. The effects on health caused by exposure to high levels of sulphur dioxide include breathing problems, respiratory illness, decreases in the lung's defenses, and worsening of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. People with asthma or chronic lung or heart disease are most sensitive to this chemical, which also damages trees and crops. Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are the main precursors of acid rain.
Children and the elderly are most vulnerable to the barrage of chemicals we breathe every day, says Iser-Itzik. In recent studies, the IUED found that one in five children under the age of 12 is affected by these chemicals, rendering them more prone to respiratory ailments such as asthma and lung disease, which can lead to cancer.
The uncertain fate of her own children drove Iser-Itzik into environmental law. Her work has its up and downs. Sometimes she cooperates with government ministries, other times she sues them.
Most recently, the IUED has been happy to report cooperative work with US congressman Henry Waxman and institutions like the Technion in Haifa. The result is the precursor of Israel's first clean air act, expected to put some order into the way justice is dealt to environmental polluters.
Woven into the act will be educational reform to teach environmentalism to Israeli schoolchildren.
Iser-Itzik says that much needs to be done in schools. When she went to teach her twins' kindergarten class about environmentalism, the teacher thought that "the environment" was just about animals.
"There is no clean air act in Israel to date because air quality issues in this country are spread among several ministries," says Iser-Itzik.
Previous efforts to draw up a solid plan were knocked down because the ministries of industry and trade; transportation, infrastructure, and the interior held separate parts of the decision-making process.
Today, IUED lawyers sit face to face with MKs and try to explain to them why the country's environmental policies need to catch up with those in other developed countries.
Iser-Itzik believes Israel will have its own act soon, based on the model of the US Clean Air Act. "We're getting a great response from people in government," she reports.
At the preliminary Knesset reading in July, 51 Knesset members supported the bill. "This number is very unusual for a private bill," she notes.
She hopes that the new act will help the country clean up its air quickly. One issue Iser-Itzik would like to see solved is forcing the Reading power plant to shift from burning oil to natural gas. Gas was discovered off the coast near Ashkelon about 10 years ago, and the IUED reports that only technical reasons deter the Electric Company from making the switchover.
According to press reports, a gas pipeline from Ashkelon to the center of the country is due to be completed by July 2006.
The IUED expects that natural gas will be a much cleaner alterative to oil.
"There has been serious negligence by the government, local authorities, and the Electric Company for many years. If the Electric Company were to switch to natural gas, particulate matter would be negligible and nitrogen oxide levels would be 11 times less," says Iser-Itzik.
Although the IUED likes to fight powerful industries, the organization is also at the disposal of the public and is available for legal representation via its Green Alert hotline. One-quarter of the 800 cases filed last year were complaints lodged against cellular antennas and electrical wiring infrastructure.
The group also addresses lesser-known air issues on a local basis: On Friday September 16 at about 2 p.m., just as businesses were winding down for Shabbat, a large garbage dumpster was set on fire in a deserted parking lot behind the Jaffa flea market. Burning plastic could be smelt from Sderot Jerusalem; by the time a fire truck arrived 15 minutes later, tons of black pollutants had already been released into the air.
The fire department's supervisor says he receives about four calls like this every day in Jaffa. As a firefighter, he knows that the black smoke is detrimental to people's health. He suggests that cultural tensions may be the cause of the ongoing arson.
Last March, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Palestinian research organizations came together to address this issue. As part of the meeting, the groups agreed to measure air pollution in the Gaza Strip. One professor involved in the new study, Prof. Luria, noted that air pollutants released along the heavy industrial strip of the Mediterranean coast are carried inwards to the West Bank and Jordan. The group also recognized the two-way movement of pollution between Tel Aviv and the West Bank.
Iser-Itzik is working to get similar projects underway, but she fears that perhaps by the time Palestinians and Israelis are at peace with each other, there will be no "environment" left.
The grim story is that despite the IUED's and other non-governmental organizations' efforts, air pollution in Israel is increasing because more people are driving cars. People, Iser-Itzik urges, need to drive less, car pool more, and walk and ride bicycles when possible.
With polluted air entering our lungs and government policies taking so long to come into effect, can Iser-Itzik envision a future where Israelis will cut car engines - like the Swiss - to spare us from emissions?
"All my hopes in public awareness will be fulfilled the day something like this happens in Israel," she says.
Judging by a brief online survey of two major news groups, residents of Jerusalem seem to be more concerned by air pollution than Tel Avivians are. One Jerusalemite wrote to Metro complaining about the black soot on her windows. Another woman found a black ring above her daughter's sock line after an outing in the city. Long-time Jerusalemite Michele Lapidot says that air pollution in Jerusalem has become a serious problem.
"Until about 25 years ago, Jerusalem had beautiful pine-scented air. Now being outside in some places is like being in a smoke-filled room," she says.
Aviela Deitch, a resident of Kochav Ya'acov, near Neveh Ya'acov on the outskirts of Jerusalem (inside the Green Line), feels that perhaps political reasons prevent any legal action against a polluting quarry that "kicks up an awful lot of dust" close to her home. Deitch is concerned about air quality. She has reason to believe that the offending quarry is owned by the Arafat estate, which overran its contract a number of years ago. She believes that nothing can be done about the problem, and that worries her because one of her children has asthma.
Environmentalists know that air pollution can reach intolerable levels in mountainous areas, as bordering hills trap the air and keep it hostage, allowing high concentrations to accumulate.
Israel's capital, some experts fear, could face the most serious air pollution problems ever if the proposed Safdie Plan to develop suburban Jerusalem is carried through. Naomi Tsur, Jerusalem director of the Society of the Protection of Nature in Israel, says that she is beside herself with worry.
Doctor Elihu Richter, who works in public health at Hadassah hospital, believes that air pollution caused by the Safdie Plan's proposed highways will bring death to the capital.
"By promoting, predicting, and providing an urban sprawl, and ergo more vehicle kilometers, the Safdie Plan will increase air pollution. The plan will also have many indirect negative social effects It will suck Jerusalem dry, destroy the Jerusalem hills, and accelerate middle-class migration out of the city," forecasts Richter.
Tzipi Iser-Itzik says the IUED is against the Safdie Plan and is instrumental in making sure that it will be blocked. She thinks the state should build inside Jerusalem rather than destroying open spaces. Eventually, she believes, Jerusalem will house only people who cannot afford to live elsewhere.
The IUED is looking for professional interns.
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