As existing data resurfaced in recent days potentially linking increased cancer incidence in the Haifa Bay to air pollution, Environmental Protection Ministry professionals said on Wednesday that they will recommend that their new minister declare the area “an air-pollution- stricken region.”
“Despite the significant decrease in air pollution and the fact that no irregularities were measured at facilities in the region, the area is still ranked first in air pollution emissions in Israel,” a statement from the ministry said. “In light of all the data, the ministry is formulating recommendations, to the new minister when he or she assumes the position, to declare Haifa Bay as ‘an air-pollution- stricken region.’”
The Environmental Protection Ministry was reacting to media reports over the past two days claiming that Health Ministry officials had acknowledged a causal link between air pollution and cancer in the Haifa Bay region. Although pollution remains problematic in the region, the Environment Ministry stressed that during the past six years, air pollution levels have decreased by 70 percent, due to increased industrial supervision and regulation.
The media reports regarding the link between Haifa Bay cancer incidence and air pollution surfaced after Prof. Itamar Grotto, director of the Health Ministry’s Public Health Services, recently sent a letter to the appeals supervisor in the Interior Ministry’s National Planning Administration, in response to objections regarding the expansion of oil refineries in the area.
Grotto based his letter on a 2013 article published in the American Journal of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention, which examined prevalence of cancer in the Haifa area from 1998 through 2007.
Citing the article, Grotto explained that over the 10-year time period, about 780 of the 4,860 cancer cases found in the region likely resulted from air pollution exposure. Of the 60 cancer cases that occurred in children from ages 0 to 14, about 30 were probably linked to air pollution, he wrote.
“Lung cancer and bladder cancer are causally related to air pollution; regarding the other types of cancers, so far there is no proven causal relationship to air pollution,” Grotto said.
Although according to Grotto the data from that study suggest that some 50% of child cancer cases during those years may have resulted from air pollution, a second study he cited later in the letter warns that findings regarding a high incidence of childhood cancer in the Haifa region may not be statistically significant.
This second study, published in 2012 in the Journal of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, examined the incidence of cancer among 4,255 children from ages 0 to 19 also from 1998 to 2007 in Israel. While the study determined that incidence of cancer among children there was higher in comparison to the national average, the findings might not be statistically significant due to failure to adjust for socioeconomic and other variables, Grotto wrote.
Referring to the 2013 article, the Environmental Protection Ministry emphasized that “the report that was published on the subject is based on air pollution data from a decade ago.”
Meanwhile, the Health Ministry spokeswoman’s office said Wednesday that there were exaggerated media reports on cancer in children and higher pollution in Haifa. The spokeswoman said that only a small number of conflicting studies have been conducted on cancers in children and air pollution.
There is a higher level of disease in Haifa than other regions, but more research is needed, she said.
Prof. Rafael Beyar, a leading cardiologist who is director-general of Haifa’s largest hospital – Rambam Medical Center – poured some cold water on claims that air pollution has been linked directly to an increase in cancers among children in Haifa.
“I am not an epidemiologist,” Beyer said. “We treat patients.
In the last 10 years, we have seen a 20% to 30% increase in cancer patients – including children.
But we receive patients from all over the North. We built a modern, NIS 50 million children’s hospital, which attracts patients from all over. Whether patients come to us depends on personal preference and referrals from the health funds.”
“It doesn’t,” he asserted, “mean an increase in cancer in general.”
What is important, said the director-general, is for the Health Ministry to “expand the infrastructure of hospitals to improve treatment of patients and to increase prevention efforts. During the next decade, the state has to invest in this, because cancer has been for some time the leading cause of death in Israel and much of the world,” said Beyar.
Prof. Amos Etzioni, director of Rambam’s Ruth Rappaport Children’s Hospital, added: “Cancers shown to be connected to air pollution – such as lung cancers – are very rare in children.
There are other kinds of cancer suggested to be linked to pollution, but they have not been proven.”
Nonetheless, in response to the media reports that began to circulate on Tuesday night, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav accused the government ministries of “abandoning and thwarting every attempt of the authorities in the district to put an end to the hazards.”
Yahav called for an end to what he described as “impotence” of government bodies, accusing them of failing to fight for the health of the region’s residents.
“Amazingly and outrageously, municipality heads always learn the data from the media, not from government officials,” he argued. “Although I am mayor of Haifa, it is my intention to fight for every district and community of the bay, and I will continue to do everything I can to close the polluting facilities and factories.”
MK Dov Henin (Hadash), who heads a Knesset subcommittee to investigate Haifa Bay environmental and planning issues, stressed on Tuesday night that “these serious findings confirm the most severe fears that we had.”
“As we determined in conclusions of the subcommittee, radical and sharp change is needed in the conduct regarding industries and hazardous materials in the bay,” Henin said. “The time has come to put the interests of citizens before the interests of captains of industry.”
On Wednesday, the Movement for Quality Government contended that Grotto’s letter, accompanied by the 2013 report, constitutes “a first official recognition by the State of Israel of the implications of air pollution in the Haifa Bay on the health of residents.” However, the NGO also turned to the state comptroller to request that his office examine whether government branches are acting to ensure the protection of the health of Haifa area residents.
At the end of March, a team of academics from Israel and around the world launched a five-year study aiming to determine the very question as to whether there exists a link between air pollution and cancer in the Haifa Bay region.
Led by the University of Haifa and sponsored by the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection, the study will explore the link between airborne contaminants and illness in the region with a comprehensiveness and precision never yet undertaken, according to the project’s leaders. The research involves the participation of 20 research teams from nine different institutions, including Harvard University.