Trying to pitch pollution’s ills? Drop the studies and speak to the people

Experts at conference say academics must convey their findings in a way that will enable politicians and public to connect environmental hazards and health

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

Activists take part at a protest march to demand immediate action on climate change, in Tel Aviv on September 27, 2019. (Flash90)
Is our drinking water contaminated with 'forever chemicals?' (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Academics and activists looking to win the hearts and minds of the public and politicians need to explain environmental hazards in language that most people can relate to, a conference heard Monday.

Panelists at an online confab organized by the Environment and Health Fund warned that academic reports and big-picture problems would fail to sway decision-makers or ignite grassroots pressure from the street.

“The average citizen doesn’t connect the macro-problems, [doesn’t link] the things in the atmosphere that are far away, with, for example, one’s asthma,” said Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, an economist who served in the Knesset from 2015 to 2017 and now teaches at Tel Aviv University.

Trajtenberg is best known for his work coming up with a government plan intended to bring down the cost of living following the 2011 socio-economic protests, in which complaints about the costs of cottage cheese and housing started a cascade of public awareness that sparked a major movement.

Professor Manuel Trajtenberg speaks at a conference on Israeli society at Tel Aviv University, January 18, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Prof. Michael Hartal, CEO of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, said academics needed to polish their communication skills and political understanding if they want to make headway.

“We have great professionals in health and in environment, but they need to learn more about how to influence the decision-makers. It’s not enough to report on research results,” he said.

Politicians usually opt for simple answers over complex ones, he said, noting that a visible problem with a visible solution that could be brought to voters would be more likely to be dealt with than a long-term problem where voters would see few results in the near term.

Then-MK Dov Khenin at his office at the Knesset, November 3, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Dov Khenin, a former Knesset member who is active in promoting human rights and social and environmental issues, said politicians would only pay attention when it affected them politically.

“In many ways, Israeli politics is very primitive,” he said. “For many years, it just revolved around Jewish-Arab issues and what to do with the West Bank and Gaza. Today it is focused on ‘yes Bibi, no Bibi,'” he said, referring to the series of election contests which have become referenda on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Environmental challenges were still seen through the narrow prism of “protecting dragonflies,” Khenin said. “When you try to promote discussion on issues beyond this, people [Knesset members] don’t come, because the environment is not politics and people only engage in politics.”

He suggested that the pandemic had proven the public’s willingness to make big lifestyle changes — such as not traveling — when their lives were endangered, and suggested leveraging that will into environmental policy improvements.

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, center, takes part in the Climate Strike global protest, September 20, 2019 in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

The Environment and Health Fund is a not-for-profit body that brings university researchers together with government officials and civil society to probe and recommend policy on environmental health issues ranging from air pollution, the effects of passive smoking, water quality and pesticide use to chemicals in food and consumer products and climate change.

According to a new report (Hebrew) jointly published by the Fund and the Health Ministry Monday, air pollution has decreased from 2017 to 2020, thanks largely to Energy Ministry cuts in the use of coal and petroleum products and the installation of filters on power plant chimneys.

Illustrative: A worker Sprays an Israeli street with weedkiller. (YouTube screenshot)

The report also noted that regulations now ensure that drinking water fixtures are lead-free, and that dangerous pesticides such as the weedkiller paraquat and the pesticide chlorpyrifos have either been banned already, or are on their way out. (Glyphosate, a weed killer sold as Roundup, is still allowed in Israel).

Outgoing Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Itamar Grotto said that Israel would be adopting European Union pesticide standards, which will further restrict the sale of toxic pesticides.

The report included policy recommendations updated since its last report in 2017, that many had hoped would form the basis for a national environmental health plan. Those hopes have been scuppered by government instability over the last two years.

More monitoring, more studies

Conference participants also lauded the creation of a National Human Biomonitoring Lab which is testing blood and urine samples from the public for everything from metals and nicotine to the presence of minerals such as iodine in drinking water.

In the next year, the Fund is hoping to support expanded investigations into the effects on humans of so-called forever chemicals that are present in consumer products such as cookware, stain repellents and food packaging. The chemicals are already known to have entered Israel’s groundwater and have been found in drinking water throughout the US.

Illustrative: A blue rectangular piece of microplastic on the finger of a researcher with the University of Washington-Tacoma environmental science program, after it was found in debris collected from the Thea Foss Waterway, in Tacoma, Wash, May 19, 2010. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

Prof. Ilana Belmkar of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev called for more studies into the effects on human health of ingesting microplastics, tiny plastic fragments now found everywhere from the deepest seas to the North and South Poles and even in the placentas of unborn babies.

Also on the to-do list for the coming year: creating a chemical registry, updating regulations on drinking water and clean air, collecting more complete data on potable water, and starting to research air quality indoors.

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