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Study: Childhood exposure to Haifa pollution linked to increased cancer risk

Research analyzing data from 1967-2012 shows 6-17% greater risk of cancer for Haifa Bay residents exposed to high pollution levels in their youth

View of the oil refineries in Haifa Bay, May 5, 2017.  (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90/File)
View of the oil refineries in Haifa Bay, May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90/File)

A study funded by the ministries of environment and health has found a link between pollution exposure among children living in the Haifa Bay area and a higher risk for various types of cancer.

According to the report, cited in the Haaretz daily on Monday, cancer risk was found to correlate to the pollution levels to which the person were exposed and can range 6%-17% higher than those who were not exposed.

The study found higher incidences of breast cancer in women, cancers in the central nervous system, head and neck, and thyroid cancer, as well as leukemia and melanoma.

Lung cancer, which is often found as a result of exposure to contaminated environments, was not found, which researchers attribute to the fact that it usually develops at a later age.

The study focused on Haifa Bay, long seen as one of Israel’s most polluted areas, home to large-scale oil refineries and industry.

The study also found a higher incidence of asthma and allergies among Haifa Bay residents relative to their counterparts in other areas, but explained that it was not necessarily tied to exposure to pollution; there was no difference in the incidence of allergies and asthma among those who had been exposed to higher versus lower levels of pollution within the area.

The study was led Dr. Raanan Raz of the Hebrew University Center for Sustainability and Dr. David Brodai of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, with researchers from the IDF Medical Corps, the University of Haifa, and the National Center for Disease Control at the Ministry of Health.

It utilized data gathered by the IDF Medical Corps, which assesses the health of young people prior to their draft into the military, between 1967 and 2012. The data of over 2 million youths were examined, 59% of whom were men.

Monitored ended when they were diagnosed with cancer, died, or at the end of the follow-up period on December 31, 2012, Channel 12 reported.

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

Pollution exposure levels were based on a model that measured sulfur dioxide in the bay in 2002-2004. Sulfur dioxide is a byproduct of burning the fuels used by the bay’s power plant and other factories, Haaretz wrote.

Researchers noted that the data may be incomplete because the study did not take into account outside risk factors for cancers, including smoking, and due to an inability to locate sources and concentrations of pollution accurately.

The data analyzed in the study is also somewhat outdated, and advances have been made to reduce emissions of harmful pollutants in the areas since 2012. Between 2015 and 2020, emissions in the industrial zone dropped by 56% as part of a larger effort to reduce pollution in the area whereby factories transitioned to the use of natural gas, the Environmental Protection Ministry reported.

Nonetheless, the risk of cancer still exists due to emissions from the various factories in the bay. Studies from across the world have suggested that exposure to organic substances and metals emitted into the environment may cause cancer, Haaretz reported, and there are currently plans to relocate factories from Haifa Bay to less heavily populated areas by 2032.

In response to the study, Bazan Group, which operates the oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the bay, said that “any attempt to link government pollution in the past with Bazen’s activities since becoming a public company is false. In most of the years to which the study refers, the refineries were owned and held by the government, with all that this implies.”

Bazan Group has had partial ownership of the Carmel Olefins petrochemical company in the Haifa Bay since 1991 and bought the Gadiv Petrochemicals company, which also operates in the bay, in 1994. Bazan gained full ownership of Haifa Basic Oils, which operates the bay’s refinery, in 2010.

A blaze at the Bazan Group. A gasoline tank caught fire at the Haifa oil refinery on December 25, 2016. (Israel Police)

The company has been fined for violating environmental regulations numerous times, most recently in 2021 for a fire caused by an unmanaged leak of the toxic naphtha hydrocarbon mixture in 2018.

“The group has invested over 1.5 billion shekels, which has resulted in an unprecedented environmental improvement while reducing emissions into the air by up to 96% since 2009. As global reality proves to us, any transformation in the energy sector must be carried out gradually and with careful planning. Bazan will form a bridge to the future of the energy sector for transportation, and its vision is in line with the government’s vision regarding the cessation of carbon dioxide emissions in 2050,” it said.

It was also fined for an additional fire that caused toxic black clouds to form over the city in 2016.

“This study confirms what we already knew — the residents of Haifa Bay have been abandoned for decades to polluting and carcinogenic factories,” Israeli environmental group Green Course said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, the evacuation plan for the polluting factories approved by the government is full of holes, does not include concrete timetables or budgetary sources — and above all continues to endanger the health of hundreds of thousands of residents of the area,” it said.

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