Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav deployed municipal trucks to block the entrances to contaminating factories and signed orders for their closure on Sunday.
He took the measures after last week’s media reports linking the high air pollution in the Haifa Bay area to increased incidences of cancer.
“The Israeli government declared a few days ago a war on the residents of a third of Israel,” Yahav said. “Israel cannot abandon the health of the residents of the bay and operate as if ‘all is well.’” Last Tuesday, Health Ministry officials acknowledged a causal link between air pollution and higher than normal cancer rates in area. On Sunday morning, Yahav instructed about 10 municipal trucks to block the entrances to the Israel Oil Refineries Ltd. complex and the Haifa Port’s chemicals terminal.
By Sunday afternoon, Yahav signed orders canceling the business licenses of several factories in the city, saying the recently circulated data indicates that these facilities “constitute a risk to residents of Haifa.” Among the plants to receive the orders were Israel Oil Refineries, Haifa Chemicals, Carmel Olefins, and Gadiv Petrochemical Industries Ltd.
“Submitting a request to court will not annul or postpone this decision, unless a court order is received that commands the nullification/postponement or delay,” Yahav wrote to the companies.
Police summoned a municipal representative to the Zvulun precinct for questioning regarding the factory entrance obstructions. By about 6 p.m., the police reported that the city trucks began leaving the sites.
Accusing the government of “declaring war” on some 2 million Israelis, the mayor said that those at risk include not only residents of Haifa, but also of the Carmel coastal communities, the five bayside suburbs, and Tivon, Acre, Hadera, Caesarea, Zichron Ya’acov, and Binyamina.
“This is just the beginning,” Yahav continued. “I can only say that these steps will be dramatic for the Israeli economy.”
The reports regarding the relationship between 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 primarily 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, he explained that over the 10-year period, about 780 of the 4,860 cancer cases found in the region likely resulted from air pollution. Of the 60 cancer cases that occurred in children from ages 0 to 14, about 30 were probably linked to air pollution, he wrote.
Grotto cited a second study reporting that although cancer incidence among children in Haifa was higher than the national average, the findings might not be statistically significant due to failure to adjust for socioeconomic and other variables,.
“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,” he said.
On Sunday, following Yahav’s actions, the Health Ministry responded that “the relationship between air pollution and morbidity is complex,” and referred to a number of reports on the matter, including the text cited by Grotto.
The combination of Haifa Bay air pollution data, scientific support from the World Health Organization, the high morbidity rate in the area and the established causal link between air pollution and morbidity is “sufficient for the Health Ministry to establish an unequivocal policy according to which we must do everything possible to reduce the air pollution in the Haifa Bay,” the ministry said.
However, in a joint statement, the Israel Medical Association, the Israeli Society of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology and the Israel Pediatric Association stressed that “there is no reason to panic” and that “there is no evidence of excess morbidity due to cancer in children in the Haifa region.”
Emphasizing that the recent media reports are “inconsistent” with medical literature and facts, the doctors said they “regret that the public outcry based on partial data caused unnecessary damage to tens of thousands of parents.”
In response to the initial reports on Wednesday, Environmental Protection Ministry professionals said they would be recommending that whoever is appointed minister in the next government declare the Haifa Bay area “an air pollution-stricken region.” Nonetheless, the ministry warned that “the report that was published on the subject is based on air pollution data from a decade ago.”
While acknowledging that air 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 Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection agreed on Sunday that efforts implemented in recent years have significantly improved air quality, making the city’s situation comparable to that of other large municipalities in Israel or Europe.
While continuously monitoring the 22 most relevant pollutants to the region’s industry and transportation, the association members said they have identified improvement. For example, from 2000 through 2013, there was a 92% decrease in sulfur dioxide concentrations, the association said.
As far as nitrous oxides are concerned, the association’s data indicated a 71% decline between 2000 and 2013, as a result of vehicle emissions and industrial activity improvements.
During the same period, the presence of respirable particles – such as those generated by fuel combustion, refineries, industrial steam boilers, diesel engines, manufacturing powders, and fertilizers – decreased by about 87%, the association added.
From 2004 through 2013, the concentration of volatile organic compounds dropped by 88%, the data said.
Aiming to determine the extent of the link between air pollution and cancer in the Haifa Bay area, the association is sponsoring a comprehensive study on the subject, led by the University of Haifa. Launched in March, the five-year study includes 20 research teams from nine institutions in Israel and abroad, involving biological monitoring and accounting for population differences and geographical patterns.
Yahav demanded immediate answers. While some media reports discuss an improvement in the bay’s air quality, and even describe Haifa’s youth cancer rate as among the lowest of the country’s large cities, the 2013 report in the American Journal of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention shows “a real danger to the lives of our children,” he said.
“If the latest figures are correct, we demand an immediate halt to all operations of polluting industries in the Haifa-Krayot metropolitan region,” Yahav said. “If the data presented recently is incorrect, government representatives should come here without delay and present themselves and clarify why they spread anxiety among members of the public.”
MK Dov Henin (Hadash), who heads a Knesset subcommittee to investigate Haifa Bay environmental and planning issues, applauded Yahav’s decision to try to shut down the factories.
“It is important that municipalities exercise their power against polluting industries,” Henin said. “The local authorities, who were elected by the residents, must act with courage and not give in to pressure from captains of industry.”
Calling the data linking air pollution and cancer incidence “shocking,” David Castel, the president of the Haifa Chamber of Commerce, called for an immediate establishment of an investigative committee to clarify the inconsistencies between reports and ensure that public health is not being compromised.
At the same time, however, he stressed that preserving jobs remains “a common interest of the public, the municipality and the business sector.”
Until an investigation is conducted, the city should “avoid extreme measures that could cause significant and irreversible damage to businesses in the bay,” Castel said.
MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) likewise proposed the establishment of a committee to investigate pollution and its link to morbidity among the area’s residents, as well as modes of tackling the issue. Tibi stressed the importance of evaluating areas outside the Haifa area that also suffer from industrial contamination, such as the Mash’had village north of Nazareth.
As long as questions remain unanswered, however, Yahav said he was declaring “game over.” He demanded that the government immediately uncover the “real data,” adding that the children of Haifa “will not be hostages.”
“Until we know for sure the real data from government officials, we will not allow the operation of fuels and chemicals in the Haifa Bay,” he said.