False alarm

The snowball started to roll with the sensationalist hyping of the partial results of an incomplete study by Channel 2.

Usines polluantes à Haifa (photo credit: DR)
Usines polluantes à Haifa
(photo credit: DR)
As if ongoing terrorism were not enough for Israelis to worry about, this past week added the terrifying specter of Haifa babies’ heads being shrunken by pollution.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the entire country became alarmed over the report that, ironically, Israelis in saner times would consider as “ rosh katan” – literally “small head” or slang for short-sight - ed and simplistic.
The snowball started to roll with the sensationalist hyping of the partial results of an incomplete study by Channel 2. The report dramatically claimed that a University of Haifa study had found that, due to pollution from the petrochemical industry, babies were being born with heads 20 to 30 percent smaller than average.
The Health Ministry immediately refuted the report, saying there is no difference in the head circumference of newborns in the Haifa Bay region compared to those born in the rest of the country over the past six months. “This is based on raw data and a preliminary processing of averages only,” the ministry said, “but we are continuing to work on the data in a transparent process.”
Rambam Medical Center, Haifa’s largest hospital, said it was not aware of local babies being born with smaller-than-average heads. One of the benefits of the hysteria that greeted the report, however, was the focus placed on a real problem in the Haifa area.
The Haifa City Council convened an emergency meeting, attended by Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay and Mayor Yona Yahav.
Acknowledging that the statistics “only reflect a quarter of the report as a whole,” Yahav said it is no secret that the Haifa Bay factories and refineries are the main source of the area’s pollution, but that the government appears to have a contradictory policy.
“Factories cause the pollution, and their expansion has to be stopped,” said the mayor. “I’m amazed that three days ago, the government approved a 20 percent increase in their activities.” He added that “we stand with environmental groups in a war against factory expansion.”
Mayor Yahav’s remarks served to return the discussion from the incomplete results of the study to the reality of pollution as an already well documented source of disease. The Haifa-area communities that are downwind from the petrochemical industries have been found to have a prevalence of lymphoma and lung cancer that is five times the national aver - age.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon acknowledged the scope of the problem, but noted some initial successes in reducing air pollution in the Haifa Bay area.
“We have to deal with damage to the environment dating back to the British Mandate that never received an adequate response from various Israeli governments, Kahlon said. “Unlike our predecessors, we have committed ourselves to residents of Haifa and the North, and the actions we have already taken prove our direction.”
Last month Environmental Protection Ministry officials presented the first quarterly report of the five- year National Action Plan for the Haifa Bay Area – a comprehensive program approved by the cabinet in September with a budget of some NIS 300 million. The ambitious plan aims to improve air quality, pro - mote research and boost environmental supervision and enforcement.
The quarterly report notes that last year there was an 11% decrease in air pollution in the Haifa Bay area. Kahlon said that by 2018, the pollution level will be half the level in 2014. Meanwhile, 77% of the largest Haifa Bay factories are now required to com - ply with much stricter emissions levels, the ministry report said.
Part of the recent hullabaloo over newborn head sizes was no doubt connected with a popular feeling that the government, led by the Health Ministry, should start putting residents’ health above the financial interests of polluting companies. The National Action Plan for the Haifa Bay Area is a clear indication that such an effort is indeed under way.