Hundreds protest Haifa air pollution

After Health Ministry releases findings linking high cancer rates with local industry, some call for mayor’s resignation

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

Hundreds of Haifa residents protested on Saturday night over Health Ministry findings that linked heightened cancer rates in the city with high levels of air pollution in the area.

It was reported last week that Prof. Itamar Grotto, head of public health services in the Ministry of Health, has found that half of the cases of cancer in Haifa children were due to the city’s air pollution.

Grotto’s study also found that from 1997-2008, in the Haifa metropolitan area in general the rates of cancer were 16 percent higher than in the rest of the country in 16 of the 18 types of cancer checked. Certain types of cancer — lung cancer, for instance — were even more prevalent: 29% more in Haifa than in the rest of the country.

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

“We’re fighting for our lives,” the Nana10 news site quoted one protest leader, attorney Alice Goldman, as saying.

Some protestors turned their ire toward longtime Haifa mayor Yona Yahav.

“Yona Yahav, wake up! [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, wake up! You’re the acting environmental protection minister – declare our area polluted, because we’re choking and dying, and our children are more likely to die from cancer,” said Goldman.

Last week, Yahav railed against the Health Ministry for turning a blind eye to the municipality’s struggle with air pollution, and insisted the ministry has not supplied the municipality with figures on the effects of air pollution in the city for several years.

Yahav returned from an overseas trip over the weekend and is expected to give a press conference on the issue on Sunday.

Yahav lambasted the ministry for releasing the worrying statistics directly to the media and, in general, for what he called its indifference to the city’s problem.

“The Health Ministry, which basically does not exist on this front, together with the health minister who is never seen, decided to become newspaper writers and to release statistics and opinion pieces, in place of moving their butts from the fluorescent lights in their offices to the field and doing work,” Yahav told Channel 2 on Tuesday.

Since the previous government dissolved in December, and Yael German resigned from her position as health minister, Netanyahu has served as the interim health minister.

“The Haifa municipality has been fighting alone for years on the air pollution front,” Yahav said.

The Haifa municipality has rejected claims that the air pollution is the city’s fault.

“We hope that if — heaven forbid — there were a security incident on the southern border, the city of Beersheba would demand a solution from the IDF and not the other way around,” city officials said. “We hope that the next time there is a robbery on the streets of Tel Aviv, the municipality of Tel Aviv will demand a solution from the police and not the other way around.”

MK Dov Khenin of the Joint (Arab) List, who was the head of the parliamentary committee that dealt with environmental and planning challenges of the Haifa bay, said Tuesday, “These findings confirm our worst fears. A clear and drastic change is needed in the management of industry and the handling of chemicals that are dangerous to the bay.”

The Health Ministry has said that the figures on the city’s cancer rates were never hidden and were always available through the Central Bureau of Statistics and in professional journals.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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