Israeli-Palestinian team studies local water

BGU prof. Alon Tal leads group of scholars testing the area's water supply for endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Alon Tal testing water supply 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Alon Tal)
Alon Tal testing water supply 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Alon Tal)
A group of Israeli and Palestinian environmental scholars have started on a joint effort to test the area’s water supply for potentially health-altering endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
At their head is Prof. Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Sde Boker. He is also co-chairman of the Green Movement and ran for Knesset on Tzipi Livni’s ticket.
While people – and even their farm animals – continue to consume more and more medicines and chemicals, the effect of these substances once they have passed through the body and into the country’s water system are unknown, Tal explained. No one in Israel, or the Palestinian Authority, is currently looking for the presence of these chemicals or their effects “in a systematic way,” he added.
“Now we are on the hunt for the smoking gun,” Tal told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. “It is my hypothesis that Israel’s enthusiasm for water reuse has grave implications.”
Tal has received a three-year, $560,000- grant from the USAID’s Middle East Regional Cooperation (MERC) Program to conduct the project. Many of his own students from Sde Boker will conduct the lion’s share of the laboratory testing in Health Ministry labs.
In the Palestinian contingent is water engineer Nader al-Khateeb, who also serves as Palestinian director of Friends of the Earth Middle East; Dr. Alfred Abed Rabbo, an assistant professor at Bethlehem University’s Water and Soil Research Unit; Dr. Shai Armon; and a group of Palestinian students, Tal explained.
As the presence of testicular cancer increases among the population’s males and average menstruation age drops among females, Tal stressed that it is crucial to get to the root of the conundrum. While one might say that hormone levels are changing due to consumption of hormone-laden beef, Israelis in general do not consume an enormous amount of beef, he explained.
One of the main areas where 11 Sde Boker students have already begun sampling is the Yarkon River, which has never experienced such a thorough monitoring, according to Tal. The team will also be testing the sewage treatment originating from Yeruham Lake, he said. Within the bounds of the PA, in addition to assessing stream water, the group will be testing the waters at the authority’s only secondary sewage treatment plant – in Al-Bira – and those at the two deteriorating sewage treatment plants in Nablus and Tulkarem.
“I think this is going to take to the next level what we know about streams,” Tal said.
After the sampling occurs, the team members employ Health Ministry laboratories to screen them through gas chromatographs, he explained. The first initial results will begin to emerge within a few months. Each sample costs about $1,000 to perform and assess, and the group has already conducted 56 samples.
The researchers are checking the water content at an extremely detailed level, in trace amounts of parts per billion, Tal explained.
“What we don’t know are the synergistic effects – when you have a suite of, say, 20 chemicals that work in concert,” he said.
Tal was particularly appreciative of the strong group of students working with him, most of who he said are women – both on the Israeli and the Palestinian side.
“I have had over 40 master’s students over past several years, but I cannot remember a group that is collectively as assiduous as this group,” he said.
Expressing gratitude to the American government for providing the funds, Tal stressed how important it is for Israel to take the lead on this type of research.
“I really believe that this is the cutting edge in environmental health research,” he said. “Because Israel is the world leader in waste-water reuse by so much, we have a responsibility to monitor this in terms of human health.”