In recent days, both the Israeli and international media showed horrifying images of dead and blackened sea turtles, birds, and fish washed up on the Israeli seashores. Cause: a large oil spill, most likely due to a leaking ship, which now is damaging approximately 170 km. (40%) of Israel’s coast. Although the first oil was already found on a few beaches on February 17, the event was only briefly mentioned a day later in relation to a dead whale calf, which washed up on the shores just south of Tel Aviv.
A more accurate extent of the disaster became clear during the weekend, after thousands of volunteers spent their first free days after months of lockdowns cleaning the local beaches. However, during these cleaning sessions, several volunteers had to be taken to the hospital with respiratory complaints after inhaling toxic fumes. In reaction, the environmental and health ministries stated it was better for the public to not visit the beaches, while at the same time largely relying on the volunteers and National Park services to clean up the oil spills. The advice seems to have already been disregarded, with people being actively encouraged to enlist in local cleaning activities.
Although the occurrence of the oil spill was known since at least February 17, Israel’s national and local authorities failed to adequately address the disastrous effects that the oil is causing. Most attention is – rightfully so – given to the enormous ecological effects. However, oil spills are also known to form a major public health concern. And these health risks are especially prevalent in individuals who help with the clean-up: a process that is almost always done manually.
We have already seen some of these health effects appear in the volunteers: irritation to the nose, throat and lungs, accompanied by breathing problems and stress. In times where almost the whole world is expert on severe breathing difficulties, oxygen supply and invasive respiratory support, these first respiratory complaints caused by oil may seem minor. However, those are not the only acute effects that have been linked to oil spills. Other problems that may arise almost immediately after exposure include irritation of the skin and eyes, as well as neurological complaints and stress symptoms.
But there is more. Previous research has linked exposure to oil spills, especially in cleaning workers, with a variety of dermal, hematological, respiratory, renal, endocrine, and neurological complaints [source] These effects are mainly caused by direct exposure to chemicals, such as polyphenols and hydrocarbons. But that’s still not all. Crude oil also contains cadmium, mercury and nickel: heavy metals that are known to be carcinogenic in humans, potentially contributing to cancer and other degenerative diseases. Exposure to oil spills – either by breathing, swallowing or touching – could therefore result in substantial burdens of disease, even years after the initial exposure.
NOW, IT’S not that these potential health effects are completely overlooked. For example, a debate has been opened if the oil pollution could potentially lead to contamination of groundwater supplies and thus our drinking water. Although some say these risks are minimal because of Israel’s desalination plants, it is definitely a possibility that has to be considered, investigated and acted upon. In addition, the National Park authorities recognize the immediate health effects and stated that “Cleaning requires the use of appropriate protective equipment in order to maintain health and orderly evacuation to a suitable site.” They have additionally pressed the public not to visit the beaches recreationally. But the public seems either unaware: many local events for beach clean-ups are being organized and even recreational activities on the beaches are continued as if there is no contamination whatsoever.
And now another problem has arisen: on Monday, the Israeli government officially decided that any information about the oil spill that will emerge through the initiated investigation is considered classified. Thus, making the public as well as environmental organizations blind to the source, characteristics and extent of the disaster. This obscuring of the data directly affects the ability to adequately assess health risks, especially for those on the front lines of the cleaning operations. The evaluation of health effects of oil spills is a complex process, depending on many factors, such as the weathering and composition of the spilled oil, as well as the level of exposure and ongoing release.
HUMAN HEALTH must be a priority in emergency responses after oil spills, especially when relying so much on the population to help minimize the environmental damage. Public health is a responsibility of the authorities – or the national government – and action is needed. So when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated: “We must protect our beaches, our country, our environment,” one crucial part got majorly overlooked: our health.
Unfortunately, the current disaster is no unique event. Although described as “Israel’s largest ecological disaster,” the previous largest was only in 2014 when a “technical glitch” led to an oil pipe leak of five million liters of crude oil in the Evrona Nature Reserve, just north of Eilat.
Although currently under prosecution, the pipeline company still holds about 500 km. of oil pipes running through the country, which hypothetically form a risk for another leak.
More immediate, however, is the danger of oil pollution from the FSO Safer, a crippled oil tanker that is currently located in the Ras Issa terminal in Yemenite waters. The ship, built in 1974, currently holds approximately 180 million liters of oil and has since 2015 been slowly decaying after it got banned from leaving the terminal and selling its oil. In December 2020, an international team of scientists and environmentalists have pressed the importance of this ship, which is on the verge of causing a devastating disaster in the Red Sea area.
However, recent attempts to salvage the ship (only at the beginning of this month) have been delayed due to the problematic security status in war-torn Yemen. It is thus not unlikely to think that another oil spill might happen, even soon, and potentially even more devastating to both environment and public health as the current disaster.
What Israel really needs most from its leadership is guidance in dealing with the disaster, assistance with cleaning operations, and especially an openness of data, so each individual that decides to spend their precious free time on a beach, digging through the black puddles of crude oil, is well aware of the potential health risks – specifically related to the current spill. Maintaining this level of adequate public health – balanced between risks and benefits – is a mutual responsibility: of both public and government. Therefore, we need the Israeli government to be open, transparent, and extremely clear about the extent and potential risks, because it really may affect our health directly.
The writer is a Dutch-trained medical doctor with clinical experience working in mental health care, both in clinical and outreaching settings. She currently conducts academic research on post-traumatic stress disorder. Her publications are aimed to spread awareness about public and mental health, as well as promote psychological health in a daily life context.