Israel’s environmental health shows progress, but has much room for improvement, experts find

In addition to natural causes of PM accumulation, manmade sources include power plants, industry, home heating and transportation – the last of which dominates major metropolitan areas.

View of the Jerusalem forest (photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
View of the Jerusalem forest
(photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
Indoor air quality remains largely unregulated in Israel and demands more attention, a leading American toxicologist concludes in a Health Ministry report published on Wednesday.
This despite “an impressive array” of air quality monitoring stations throughout the country.
“Since even in Israel, most people spend the majority of their time indoors, more attention to indoor air standards would bring large benefits,” writes Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program.
Birnbaum’s conclusions were featured in the Environmental Health in Israel 2014 report, published jointly by the Health Ministry’s Public Health Services division and the Environment and Health Fund. While the first several chapters focus on air quality, the report examines data accumulated from 2010 through 2014 on a wide range of environmental health topics in Israel. The hope of the authors is that the document will serve as reference point for monitoring changes.
Written by Dr. Tamar Berman, chief toxicologist of environmental health at the Health Ministry, the report includes an introduction by director of Public Health Services Prof. Itamar Grotto, and a recommendations section by Birnbaum.
Israel has particularly high background levels of particulate matter (PM), due to both local natural dust and longrange transport of PM from neighboring countries, the report says. More than 50 percent of PM2.5 – particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less – levels in Israel are due to such long-range transport, mostly from Europe and the Mediterranean. Levels become especially high during the winter and transition seasons, from the Sahara and Arabian deserts.
Man-made sources of PM include power plants, industry, home heating and transportation – the last of which dominates large metropolitan areas.
Israel ranks 44th out of 90 countries for annual mean PM2.5 levels and 24th for annual mean PM10 – particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less – according to the World Health Organization, the authors note.
Levels of PM10, ozone and nitrogen oxides continue to exceed the maximum limit values in major metropolitan areas. Because the Finance Ministry reduced funding for the National Pollution Reduction and Prevention Program, the future decrease will not be as large as originally intended, the authors warn.
While data are available for illnesses associated with ambient air pollution, like asthma, cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer, such information has not been definitively linked to data on air pollution, the authors observe. It therefore remains “difficult to ascertain the air pollution-related incidence of these diseases on a national level,” they conclude.
Another section of the report looks at the standards implemented in Israel regarding planning and building contaminants.
The introduction of regulations on thermal insulation in 1985 caused the proportion of homes within condensation-related mold to decrease by 25%, the authors find. Meanwhile, regulations for radon levels were passed in 1970 – and updated in 2008 – and 2011 ventilation standards define values for other indoor contaminants.
Because the average person spends up to 90% of his or her time indoors, it is crucial to collect more data on indoor air quality in Israel, the authors say. Together with the Health Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry is planning a pilot program to do so in schools in 2015. Yet no data are available concerning residential dust in Israel, which could provide an important tool for assessing human exposure to indoor contaminants, the authors say.
Nonetheless, they find encouraging the trend to adopt green building principles, which include testing of ventilation systems. They warn, however, that reducing energy consumption by thermal insulation in such buildings may harm air quality due to the accumulation of indoor pollutants.
Turning their attention to cigarettes, the authors find that despite extensive legislative efforts to curb the phenomenon, most of the population is exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. Citing a 2010 Central Bureau of Statistics Survey, the report says that 71.3% of non-smokers aged 20-74 claimed they had been exposed to such smoke in the previous month.
Among infants, 25% of Jewish babies and 52% of Arab babies are exposed to environmental tobacco smoke by two months of age, Health Ministry data indicate.
While smoking is prohibited in most public places, the Health Ministry is working on extending that ban to include electronic cigarettes and water pipes, and to involve more public spaces such as stadiums and public parks, the report says.
The report looks at a number of other topics – such as chemical parameters in drinking water, pesticides, chemical food contaminants and chemicals in consumer products. The report explores biomonitoring – measurements of human exposure to natural and synthetic chemicals – as well as asbestos presence, non-iodizing radiation and climate change.
As far as drinking water standards are concerned, the authors praise Israel for having made major progress in data reporting. Going forward, as 30% of Israel’s drinking water is expected to hail from desalinated sources in 2015, the authors stress the importance of evaluating the impact of reduced calcium and magnesium intake.
The effects of ending drinking water fluoridation must also be studied, the authors say.
Birnbaum points out in her conclusion that “Israel has the dubious honor of having the highest relative use of pesticides of many developed countries.”
While requirements for distancing pesticide use from homes and schools exist, “whether these are actually enforced is another issue,” she writes.
Describing Israel as a world leader in research on the health impacts of non-ionizing radiation, Birnbaum warns that if some studies are “harbingers of things to come, we may have major health consequences from the nearly ubiquitous presence of wireless equipment.”
Calling upon the Health Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry and other relevant ministries to increase their cooperative activities regarding pollution prevention, Birnbaum notes that damage to health relating to things such as transportation volume affect both adults and children “from the time they are in the womb.”
“Children are our future,” she concludes. “Increased efforts should be made to monitor their exposures to environmental contaminants...
and to prevent their exposure to environmental contaminants, especially indoor and outdoor air pollution, pesticides, environmental tobacco smoke, and chemicals in consumer products and food.”