Haifa municipal workers block refinery access for 2nd day
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Haifa municipal workers block refinery access for 2nd day

In wake of damning pollution report, leading doctors say no clear evidence of link between cancer and chemical plants

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Haifa's industrial area. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)
Haifa's industrial area. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)

Haifa municipality workers blocked access to the city’s industrial zone for a second consecutive day, following a Health Ministry warning last week that linked high cancer rates in the city to air pollution from nearby factories.

Using cranes and heavy machinery, the Israel Oil Refineries and Petroleum & Energy Infrastructures management later removed municipality vehicles that had been blocking trucks from accessing its plants.

“It’s amazing that since the release of the Health Ministry report, we have not yet heard any explanation or comment for a week,” the municipality workers said in a statement, according to Channel 10 News. “Not even a word from the ministry or from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been equally impotent. For some reason no one cares, and the Haifa municipality stands as usual at the front.”

Haifa is home to Israel’s largest seaport and a number of petrochemical factories.

Several leading oncologists and other doctors on Monday disputed the ministry’s conclusions — which noted a disproportionately high rate of cancer in the Haifa area that could be linked to the operation of the plants — and said there was insufficient evidence to tie pollution in the area and the high cancer rates, according to Haaretz.

Written by Professor Itamar Grotto, head of the ministry’s public health department, the warning quoted Hebrew University research published in the American Journal of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention, which found “an increased risk of developing cancer in a heavily-industrialized sub-district” of the city. The letter was submitted as part of an appeal against plans to expand oil refineries in the area.

“Compared to the incidence in the rest of Israel, the Haifa subdistrict population had an elevated hazard ratio of lung, head and neck, colorectal, gastric and esophagus, bladder and cervical carcinoma,” the researchers wrote.

According to the ministry, cancer rates in Haifa are 16 percent higher on average than in the rest of the country, specifically lung cancer. The ministry also estimated that half of the cancer cases among Haifa children were linked to air pollution.

However, the director of the Hadassah Hospital, professor of oncology Tamar Peretz, and Professor Isaac Yaniv, the chairman of the Association of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology in Children, insisted in an interview with Haaretz that the ministry’s study does not support a direct correlation between the incidence of cancer among Haifa residents and air pollution. According to Peretz, the data included in the study was either presented incorrectly or misinterpreted.

Nevertheless, Peretz added that despite the lack of hard evidence supporting a direct correlation, she believed the city’s high cancer rates were in fact linked to air pollution.

“Is the reason [for disproportionate cancer rates in Haifa] necessarily tied to environmental pollution? Factually, that is not what is raised by the study, but theoretically it is possible, and I personally believe it to be so,” Peretz said. “It remains an open question.”

Yaniv, for his part, said the Health Ministry’s position on an apparent link between pollution and cancer was not in line with worldwide medical consensus on the matter.

“Air pollution is bad and we must fight it, but there is no evidence in the scientific and medical literature that links between air pollution and cancer in children,” he said.

Haaretz further reported that a study published in 2012 indicates that the rate of cancer cases in children residing in Haifa was not, in fact, higher than average, and is in many cases even lower in comparison to other regions in the country.

Police arrested a Haifa municipality official on Sunday for blocking access to the city’s petrochemical plants, a day after hundreds of the city’s residents protested over the Health Ministry’s findings. The official, the manager of the city’s vehicle fleet, was accused of using automobiles belonging to the municipality to prevent trucks from delivering goods to the industrial zone. Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav directed the municipality’s move to block the site.

“If the latest data is correct, we demand an immediate halt to all operations of the polluting factories in the Greater Haifa area,” Yahav said.

In a statement, Israel Oil Refineries said it had invested over 1 billion shekels ($255 million) in “preserving the environment and diminishing pollutant emissions.”

The company, which describes itself as Israel’s “largest integrated refining and petrochemical group,” said “objective bodies” had measured “dramatic improvements” in pollution levels.

Judah Ari Gross and Justin Jalil contributed to this report.

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