The Environment Ministry's division that deals with harmful dust received a distress call last week. A woman living on a moshav in central Israel reported that a fire broke out in one of the chicken coops that was partially built with asbestos. She was concerned about the dangerous substance spreading to homes, and asked what to do.

Ministry personnel were unable to assist her or any of the other many callers regarding the asbestos. For six months, the Environment Ministry has not been dealing with one of the most serious environmental hazards because insurance has not been arranged for its inspectors. The personnel do not inspect asbestos hazards and assess the danger they cause, and are not approving the carrying out of work to evacuate the dangerous substance.

It is difficult to assess the price in health the public is paying due to the ongoing failure to deal with asbestos. It is clear that it is an especially serious danger. In places like Nahariya, where an asbestos manufacturing facility operated, and in asbestos structures that were burned in other places, people were exposed to fibers that are liable to penetrate their respiratory systems and cause various types of cancer, including a special cancer, mesothelioma, related to asbestos exposure. Asbestos fibers are also the cause of a deadly lung disease called asbestosis.

Professor Arthur Frank, an internationally renowned expert from the United States, visited here last week at the invitation of an environmental group in Nahariya and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V'Din). On his second visit to Israel, Frank came to examine the various aspects of the asbestos problem. He warned against evacuating the material without approval. This type of evacuation, he argued, would lead to the spread of the danger to other places. He defined the lack of action by the government on this matter as immoral.

Efforts have been made in recent days to find a solution for the insurance problem in which the Finance and Environment Ministries are involved. This is after too many months during which hundreds of calls that reached the Environment Ministry were not addressed, and only after the two NGOs turned to the High Court of Justice and forced the government to act.

The return of inspectors to work is only one aspect of a range of actions the state should take due to the severity of the problem of asbestos exposure. In Frank's assessment, the rate of mesothelioma patients in the Western Galilee is 40 times higher than it should be in comparison with other places in the world. He noted that the increase in the rate of mesothelioma patients indicates that there also are a large number of people who have developed other types of cancer as a result of asbestos exposure. Not just people who worked with asbestos, but those who use the material for a variety of needs in their homes.

It is also understood that this is not just a problem for those who worked in factories producing asbestos. Officials from the Health Ministry and Environment Ministry reached the conclusion six months ago that there is no value in conducting an epidemiological survey of mesothelioma patients to determine the level of environmental risk. The reason for this is that it is already known from other places in the world that exposure to asbestos in the environment (outside of asbestos factories) is carcinogenic.

To deal with asbestos requires the establishment of evacuation sites for the material and surveys to assess the problem's scope, including locating the asbestos dumps and evacuation projects. Those advocating a strict policy, including Frank, also argue for a complete prohibition over the use of asbestos. Some use of the material is still permitted here today.

The Environment Ministry is trying to channel a significant part of its budget to this matter, but additional resources will be required. Even if Frank is correct regarding only part of his assessment of the implications of the material on public health, the conclusion is that many people in the Western Galilee and other areas are liable to become seriously ill if the piles of asbestos or buildings in which this material is used are not moved far from their place of residence and work place.