There is no Planet B

The government and NGOs are trying to win a war against pollutants in our environment, but Israel still has a long way to go.

Cartoon pollution (photo credit: TNS)
Cartoon pollution
(photo credit: TNS)
There are some 80,000 chemicals and particles in the world, 15,000 of them apparently of environmental concern, but every year, mankind is exposed to more of these, many of whose potentially harmful effects are unknown.
In adults or children, these substances can cause asthma, allergies, cardiopulmonary disorders, neuro-toxicity and neurological impairment, obesity, gastro-intestinal diseases, acute poisonings and developmental and congenital abnormalities. Yet when developing fetuses in the womb are exposed to pollutants, the harm can be even greater, leading to congenital disorders and even obesity and diabetes decades later.
Environmental quality directly affects human health, with almost a quarter of all diseases attributed to environmental factors, annually killing an estimated 12.6 million people around the world.
There is growing awareness of the effects of environmental factors on health, but too often, governments, manufacturers, retailers and importers lag behind the growing dangers. A major Israeli non-governmental organization that for the last 10 years has monitored and lobbied for a cleaner environment is the Environment and Health Fund (EHF).
The fund says it is committed to expanding expertise, upgrading policies, raising awareness and sharing knowledge about environment and health in Israel, with the ultimate goal of enhancing human health and well-being. “We believe that improved policy and regulation will lead to a reduction in the risks to public health caused by exposure to chemicals in the environment.”
Environmental health comprises those aspects of human health and disease that are determined by low-dose, chronic exposure to pollutants that include industrial waste, air emissions from vehicles on the road and industry, industrial and residential water discharges, chemicals in consumer products and ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
The EHF was established in 2007 by Yad Hanadiv, which functions here on behalf of a number of Rothschild family philanthropic trusts, continuing a tradition of support for Jewish revival in Palestine begun by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in the second half of the 19th century.
During its early years EHF focused on enhancing capacity and capabilities in Environmental Health in Israel by promoting scientific research and academic training and enhancing the expertise of professionals in government. Two university centers of excellence were established by the fund, and it has awarded researcher numerous postdoctoral and returning scientists’ fellowships and grants; organized conferences and workshops; and published various reports and publications.
Today, the EHF’s work is focused on reducing the exposure of infants and children to chemicals in food and consumer products, such as heavy metals, pesticides, flame retardants, phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in air pollution (from cigarettes, vehicle emissions and even metal particles in natural Negev sand).
According to EHF director Dr. Ruth Ostrin, “in everyday life we are rarely exposed to one chemical at a time. Many of the chemicals are so widespread that we are most likely exposed to several of them together, in low doses and for weeks, months or even years. The level of risk of each of the different environmental pollutants depends in part on the stage of life during which we are exposed.
Research shows that fetuses, infants and children are especially susceptible to environmental toxins. Such health effects could be substantial and irreversible. To protect our health, we must be aware of the hazards and act to reduce them.”
OSTRIN CHAIRED the 10th annual meeting of the EHF, held earlier this month at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, along with EHF board chairman, Prof. Ilan Chet, a former president of the Weizmann Institute and longtime professor of microbiologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s agriculture faculty in Rehovot.
“Over the years, the EHF has donated several tens of millions of dollars for public health and environmental research,” Chet told the audience. We opened centers at the Hebrew University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, opened jobs for researchers and invited foreign experts to speak at conferences.
“Of 15 postdoctoral students we sent to the US, 14 of them returned, and there is a young generation of master’s and doctoral degree researchers,” continued Chet. “We have contacts with MKs and decision- makers and voluntary organizations. We who fight for the environment don’t have enough resources, but the situation is much better now than before.”
Together with the Health Ministry, including chief toxicologist Dr. Tamar Berman, the EHF issued a 128-page, Hebrew-language report on “Health and Environment 2017” that was presented at the one-day event. The previous report was issued in 2014.
The new report includes data and trends of outdoor and indoor air quality, tobacco, chemicals in drinking water, sewage, pesticides, chemicals in food and consumer products such as plastics, human biomonitoring, non-ionizing radiation, climate change, planning of land use and transportation and sensitive populations. The report notes that, in recent years, there has been a decrease in the level of certain air pollutants; the national plan for reducing air pollution in the Haifa Bay has been approved; and environmental standards have been set for additional pollutants. Yet, it states that the quality of air in certain locations in Israel requires improvement, and there should also be an investment in reducing air pollution from cars, with an emphasis on reducing travel and investing in sustainable public transportation.
The average person spends up to 90% of his or her time indoors and may be exposed to a variety of contaminants that may affect health. There is little research here on indoor air quality and regulation in the field is insufficient, the report noted.
While the ministry is aware of dangerous chemicals in children’s toys, playground equipment paints containing lead and other consumer products, not enough is being done to prevent the presence of heavy metals in these objects, the report says.
At the end of the volume, green, yellow and red squares signify “significant,” “a certain amount” and “little or no” progress in the nation’s environmental health situation. Unfortunately, by the ministry’s own measure, there is very much to be done, with 12 greens, 15 yellow and 13 reds.
THE MAIN invited foreign speaker at the event was Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), one of America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH). Birnbaum has served for years as an adviser to the EHF since 2011.
Birnbaum is the first toxicologist and the first woman to lead the NIEHS. She has spent most of her career as a federal scientist. She oversees federal funding for biomedical research to discover how the environment influences human health and disease. Her own research and many of her articles published in journals focus on the pharmacokinetic behavior of environmental chemicals; mechanisms of actions of toxicants, including endocrine disruption; and linking of real-world exposures to health effects.
Birnbaum, who was born in New Jersey and is married and the mother of three, also teaches environmental health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the integrated toxicology program at Duke University.
Her three-page summary and conclusions at the end of the annual report were translated into Hebrew for the benefit of local readers. She wrote that air pollution here continues to be excessive and worrisome, as the country’s population and vehicular traffic are very dense and particulate matter floats in from countries beyond the southern border. Israelis are increasingly drinking desalinated water that lacks vital minerals such as magnesium and iodine, which the ministry has not added to the potable water supply.
In addition, Birnbaum warned, pesticide levels in Israel’s intensive agriculture are too high; they and other chemicals seep into the groundwater. But the biggest worry, continued the NIEHS chief, is climate change and global warming that have dried up the country’s rainfall this year and in recent years.
“It is vital,” she concludes, that the various government authorities “cooperate to produce the necessary data for improving environmental health in the coming years… Without a clean environment, we will not be able to enjoy maximal health and welfare.”
In her speech to the conference, she said that BPAs, first used in the 1930s, are used in thermal paper, plastic baby bottles and other products and can affect the brain, liver, pancreas and other organs. Fetuses exposed in utero can result in weight gain when they are teens or adults.
Even exposing mothers and fathers to BPA before conception can result in harm from more and larger fat cells in the body that hold more water. The result in offspring can be changes in glucose metabolism and even the development of type-2 diabetes when they are adults.
Mice exposed to BPA undergo changes in their brain-satiety centers, so that “early life exposure increases the number of neurons that say: “Feed me. I’m hungry.’ Such mice also expend less energy and don’t like to exercise on the wheel at night. They prefer to sleep.”
As for PAHs, said Birnbaum, prenatal exposure to them is also associated to obesity in childhood. They come from air pollution, especially diesel, and from tobacco smoke. These pollutants ccan even reduce children’s IQ.
“I was in India a few weeks ago, and the air pollution there is terrible. Planes couldn’t see where they were supposed to land at New Delhi airport. Israel is not as bad as India or China or even the US, but annual exposure to particulate matter is still too high, partly because of desert particles.”
While consumption of sugar is not good, the use of some artificial sweeteners can cause poor glucose functioning and make people become obese, even diabetic. Antibiotics are widely given to farm animals living in crowded conditions to prevent disease and make them grow faster and gain more weight, causing antibiotic resistance.
DR. SHAI Reicher, head of the ministry’s risk assessment section, noted: “We don’t wake up in the morning and think how we can poison people. We want to eliminate risks, and we do the best we can.” He said that in 2012, there was big recall of nitrosamines in pacifiers and children’s toys – and even some diaper changing mats – with high levels of phthalates.
The ministry also warned about heavy metals in coffee machines and in children’s jewelry. “The only consumer products that undergo a formal registration process as required by laws are pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products,” added Reicher. “There are 3,600 non-binding standards that serve as guidelines, but they are not mandatory, so importers and exporters can decide whether to follow them.”
There are only 360 mandatory standards, he said. Few people know that the Israel Standards Institution’s procedure for proposing and approving a standard begins with discussions on which a consensus has to be reached – including by manufacturers and importers – and that they must be signed in the end by the prime minister and finance minister.
“There is ongoing political pressure to reduce trade barriers and increase competition in the consumer products market, with the emphasis on cutting prices to the public. If merchandise is relatively expensive here, the public buys things on the Internet, usually from unregulated markets,” said Reicher. “Unfortunately, public- health related issues do no get enough attention.”
The ministry official called for comprehensive regulation of chemicals in consumer products, plus chemicals registration. “We need more research and surveys on chemicals. But even when standards are in place, enforcement of the laws are inadequate. “Many things are not enforced. Israel is a developed country, but we need more manpower and larger budgets. There is much room for improvement.”
Ministry Associate Director-General Prof. Itamar Grotto noted that the government has passed new targets and environmental standards for benzene, mercury, formaldehyde and other chemicals in the environment. There is less sulfur dioxide and others in major cities, he continued. “We know is problem with enforcement of laws on smoking in public places,” he acknowledges. “Products that are in contact with drinking water have to be lead free. Next year and in 2019 there will be new requirements on plastic and metals products… We still have a long way to go, as health is not primary consideration in planning decisions and product regulation, and there is growing political pressure to deregulate.”