Number of Israelis harmed by pollution more than doubled in past decade — ombudsman

Annual state comptroller report slams agriculture and health ministries for failing to control pesticides, pillories Environment Ministry for not tackling environmental damage

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Illustrative photo of fruit and vegetables in the Mahane Yehuda market, October 13, 2017. (Stuart Winer/Times of Israel)
Illustrative photo of fruit and vegetables in the Mahane Yehuda market, October 13, 2017. (Stuart Winer/Times of Israel)

The number of Israelis harmed by pollution has more than doubled over the last decade, with air pollution alone costing the economy up to NIS 31 billion ($8.6 billion) a year, according to the state comptroller’s annual report on a range of subjects, released Tuesday.

From 2013 to 2021, the number of Israelis suffering environmental harm leaped by 137 percent, with figures from 2018 to 2022 putting the figure at 5,199 people, the ombudsman found.

Despite that, visits by Environmental Protection Ministry inspectors to factories dropped by almost half (44%), from 5,580 visits in 2018 to 3,182 in 2021.

In a separate chapter, the ombudsman also found that 113 pesticides banned years ago in other developed countries were still legally available in Israel, with abnormally high amounts of chemical residue found in 25% to 65% of green onions, lettuce, cherries, dill, cucumbers, and grapes.

The environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din said the figures on abnormally high pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables were not new and “should worry every Israeli and certainly every parent in Israel.”

The State Comptroller’s definition of pollution includes contamination of air, water, and soil, noise, harm to ecosystems, the spread of non-native (invasive) species, and radiation.

In 2018, according to the report, pollution and global warming gas damage to the air alone cost the economy up to NIS 31 billion.

Following up on a report it issued about Environmental Protection Ministry supervision and enforcement in 2019, the office found that “most of the failures warned about have not been corrected.”

“Since the previous audit, the challenges and risks inherent in handling environmental hazards have intensified,” the report warned, “and they are expected to increase in the years to come.”

Illustrative photo of untreated industrial effluent flowing into a river. (Toa55 November 20, 2017s iStock/Getty Images)

“However, the auditor found that the main weaknesses in the supervision and enforcement system of the Ministry of Environmental Protection remain.”

These included a decrease in supervision in factories, a lack of enforcement — particularly against criminal activity, that harmed deterrence, a poor organizational structure, and a lack of staff.

The audit found that between 2018 and June 2022, no enforcement measures were taken at all in 60% of documented incidents of environmental harm (2,203 out of 3,674 cases).

Furthermore, out of 16 supervision and enforcement regulations approved in 2017, only nine had been used from 2018 to 2022.

Underlining the failure to act on pesticides was a long-running turf war between the health and agriculture ministries, the State Comptroller found.

There was no adequate supervision of farmers to ensure that they used pesticides in line with the manufacturers’ instructions, the report said.

Aircrafts spraying pesticides over agricultural fields in Ramat Negev, March 11, 2013. (Flash90)

Despite the passing of a law 11 years ago mandating supervision of edible agricultural products, there were still no regulations to limit the use of poisonous chemicals by farmers authorized to use them, to supervise the chemicals’ sale, or to test users’ knowledge or ensure they got regular health checks.

The report cited Health Ministry data from 2019 to 2020 that found that overall, 18.8% of fruits and vegetables carried excess pesticide residue, but that this percentage rocketed to anything from 25% to 60% for green onions, lettuce, cherries, dill, cucumbers, and grapes.

It  said that the agriculture and health ministries agreed that regulation was needed, but disagreed about what, preventing effective supervision and monitoring.

The situation had remained the same for many years, “and in the meantime, protection of the public has been compromised,” the ombudsman wrote.

An illegal cement container found during an Environmental Protection Ministry inspection of a factory in Kafr Kara, northern Israel. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

Hours before State Comptroller Matanyau Engelman was due to officially present the report, the Environmental Protection Ministry issued a press release saying, “We continue to enforce against pollutants that harm the quality of life of residents,” and reporting that it had warned and carried out a hearing against a cement company in the northern Arab town of Kafr Kara that was operating without a business license and harming the environment.

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