Following a Health Ministry announcement on Tuesday negating claims regarding excessive childhood cancer in Haifa, the mayor withdrew closure orders he had issued to chemical plants two days prior.
The Health Ministry’s clarification came after nearly a week in which media reports cited ministry statements linking cancer incidence in the Haifa Bay to air pollution, as well as indicating a heightened presence of childhood cancer in comparison to the rest of the country. National Cancer Registry data revealed “an excess morbidity of cancer in general and lung cancer in adults, but there is no evidence of excess cancer morbidity in childhood ages,” a statement from the Health Ministry said.
While this announcement prompted Mayor Yona Yahav to rescind orders to close the bay’s polluting factories, he slammed the ministry for acting irresponsibly and unnecessarily sending Haifa residents into a state of panic and emotional turmoil.
“A few hours ago, like thieves in the night, the Health Ministry issued a weak and apologetic messages that in other words says, ‘We were wrong,’” Yahav said on Tuesday. “I declare: this time as well, you will not succeed in quieting us.”
The media reports regarding childhood cancer incidence in Haifa 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 cancer prevalence in the Haifa region from 1998 through 2007.
Citing the article, he said that over the 10-year period, about 780 of the 4,860 cancer cases found in the region likely resulted from air pollution.
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Of the 60 in children ages 0 to 14, about 30 were probably linked to air pollution, he wrote.
Although acknowledging the gravity of air pollution problems in the region, both the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection agreed that monitoring efforts and regulatory steps taken in recent years have significantly improved air quality.
During the past six years alone, the Environment Ministry said, air pollution levels have decreased by 70 percent.
After making the announcement on Wednesday denying any excess in childhood cancer morbidity, the Health Ministry stressed it would “continue to review the data in the article.”
“The Health Ministry director- general will continue to hold discussions with additional experts in other fields,” a ministry statement said.
The explanatory announcement was the result of a discussion led by the ministry’s director-general, with the participation of the Israel Medical Association chairman, heads of the Israel Pediatric Association, the Israeli Society of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology and the Public Health Association, as well as representatives from the University of Haifa and Rambam Medical Center.
In the days before the clarification, however, Yahav stressed that Haifa had experienced a tough week, noting that “even during the Second Lebanon War, I never experienced such frustration and helplessness.”
Amid the uncertainty, on Sunday morning, Yahav deployed municipal trucks to blockade the entrances to factories deemed to be polluters, arguing that the circulating reports indicated that these facilities “constitute a risk to residents of Haifa.” That afternoon, he sent license cancellation letters to Israel Corporation-owned Israel Oil Refineries Ltd. (ORL) and its subsidiaries Carmel Olefins and Gadiv Petrochemical Industries Ltd., as well as Haifa Chemicals.
The next day, the Haifa Municipal Court honored a request from ORL to delay the cancellations until a future decision, scheduling a discussion for Tuesday. By Tuesday, the court revoked them entirely after receiving a message about the issue from the Haifa municipality, according to an ORL report to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
“In light of the Health Ministry’s announcement according to which the data related to cancer morbidity in children was inaccurate, and following the ministry’s retraction of statements on this issue, the closure orders were canceled and therefore the [Tuesday] court hearing...became unnecessary,” a municipal spokesman said.
Despite the ministry clarification regarding the data, Yahav said he was appealing to State Comptroller Joseph Shapira to examine the “scandal” that took place over the past week, and he also called upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint former state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to head a committee that would examine real data linked to Haifa children’s health.
Yahav said he also has instructed the city engineer to freeze all elements of Haifa Bay development programs, pledging to show up personally to all significant discussions of these programs and demand accompanying public hearings.
“Game over – there will not be an increase in the production of fuels and chemicals in the Haifa Bay,” he added.
Calling the ministry’s initial reports “hallucinatory,” Yahav continued to demand that it provide clearer answers.
“Haifa experienced a dramatic decline in recent years in pollution,” the mayor said Tuesday.
“There is no excess or abnormal morbidity of children in the city of Haifa. Haifa is a great place to live.”
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