Knesset rejects proposal to probe Haifa pollution
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Knesset rejects proposal to probe Haifa pollution

While study released this week suggests link between heavy industry and birth defects, Health Ministry data shows infants in area have average head sizes

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

Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa in April 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa in April 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The Knesset rejected Wednesday a proposal to set up a parliamentary investigative committee to probe an alleged link between infant disorders and pollution caused by heavy industry in the Haifa region.

Thirty-five members of Knesset voted against the proposal, which was brought forward by the Zionist Union, while 34 voted in favor.

The proposal followed media reports on a University of Haifa study that appeared to show a link between high pollution levels in the Haifa area and birth defects, including infants with smaller than average heads.

However, the Health Ministry released data Wednesday indicating that the measurements for the circumference of infants’ heads in the Haifa area were not significantly different than those of the national average.

According to the data, which was released at the request of the Ynet news site, average skull size for male newborns in the Haifa district was 34.7 centimeter, compared to a national average of 34.68 centimeter, while the circumference for female infants’ heads was 34.03 centimeter, as opposed to the national average of 34.09 centimeter.

The ministry emphasized, however, that the information was based on a preliminary evaluation of the subject, and therefore does not necessarily refute findings by University of Haifa researchers, which suggest that disorders such as smaller-than-average heads and relatively low weight in newborns in Haifa were linked to pollution in the area.

View of Haifa under heavy smog (Photo credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)
View of Haifa under heavy smog (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)

The University of Haifa study, released on Sunday, was commissioned by the Health and Environmental Protection ministries, and was only due to be published later this year.

The study identifies Kiryat Haim, Kiryat Bialik and southeast Kiryat Tivon as the epicenters of pollution-related disorders, and says residents there are five times more likely to develop lung cancer and lymphoma than those living elsewhere in Israel.

The circumference of some infants’ heads in those areas was recorded at 20-30 percent less than elsewhere, the researchers found.

The Haifa area, hemmed in by the Carmel Mountains, is home to some of the heaviest industry in the country, and residents there have long complained of health issues and severe pollution.

During a speech Wednesday at the Knesset, Joint (Arab) List chairman Ayman Odeh urged the government to declare the Haifa Bay area as a polluted region, and take the necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of the residents of the area.

“As a resident of Haifa and as a dad I can not see the existing environmental danger in the region as anything but a direct threat to the health of my children,” Odeh said. “[The government] should immediately declare the Haifa Bay area as a region struck by pollution, and act in accordance with the law and stop all promotion of new polluting projects.”

On Sunday, the Environmental Protection Ministry said that, based on its own “working assumption” that air pollution in the Haifa Bay was too high, it had developed a program that saw a 11% drop in pollution. That was still too high, the ministry said, and the new research would form the basis for the program’s second stage.

On Monday, Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabai vowed that “drastic” measures would be taken to address environmental health issues in the northern industrial city. If other, state-funded studies corroborated the university’s findings, the government would take “full responsibility” for the increased health risks in the Haifa area, Gabai told Channel 2 Monday evening.

Gabai said the Finance Ministry had made additional funds available to the Environment Ministry to address environmental health issues in the Haifa area.

The government is prepared to close factories in the industrial port city if necessary, he added.

According to Gabai, the government has a plan in place to reduce pollution in the city by 50% by 2018.

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