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Minister vows ‘drastic’ measures after Haifa pollution report

Research finds infants in area have smaller-than-average heads; environmental protection chief says state may shutter factories if second study confirms figures

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

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

A day after researchers from the University of Haifa published a study suggesting a link between infant disorders and pollution caused by heavy industry, Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabai on Monday 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.

Environment Protection Minister Avi Gabai (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Environment Protection Minister Avi Gabai (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

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.

He did not detail when the plan would be implemented.

Independent epidemiologist Dr. Shagai told Channel 2 that, according to his assessment, differences shown by the research in the health of newborn babies between Jerusalem and Haifa were “significant.”

In addition to the high rates of cancer identified in Haifa residents in previous studies, the research found symptoms of pollution-related disorders such as smaller-than-average heads and relatively low weight in newborns.

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

Earlier on Monday, Gabai — along with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman — called the researchers who conducted the study to the Knesset for an urgent meeting.

After the meeting, Litzman said Sunday’s report was the first he had heard about the problem.

Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, April 15, 2015 (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, April 15, 2015 (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

“We need to deal with the findings of this report in all seriousness. This is a very problematic situation. We’ve been to Haifa twice recently and we were not told about this problem,” he said, according to news site Ynet.

The study was commissioned by the Health and Environmental Protection Ministries, and was only due to be published later this year.

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.

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.

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Joint (Arab) List Knesset faction head Ayman Odeh, a Haifa native, accused the government of pushing ahead with industrial projects, making pollution in the area worse.

“The severe figures revealed yesterday show again that the government is abandoning the health of its citizens for the benefit of business interests,” he said in a statement.

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 an 11-percent 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.

A study published last year — which showed a higher rate of cancer in Haifa — sparked local protests, and Mayor Yona Yahav temporarily ordered some factories to shutter. This order was later overturned by a court decision.

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