Spraying against locusts around the greenhouses of Kadesh Barnea in the Negev.
Spraying against locusts around the greenhouses of Kadesh Barnea in the Negev. Photo by Alberto Denkberg
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Hagai Frid
Cucumber hothouses near Moshav Ahituv homes. Farmers there say they make sure to use insecticides in accordance with Agriculture Ministry restrictions. Photo by Hagai Frid

The interministerial committee coordinating pesticide use has decided to reduce the number of pesticides permitted for use. The Health Ministry, which is spearheading the committee's efforts, made the announcement Friday following a steep rise in the number of complaints concerning exposure to harmful substances and the state comptroller's references to the issue in his annual report released last week.

The committee decided that use of insecticides containing three types of organophosophate substances will be halted in two months, and use of other substances will be banned within two years.

The decision followed recent studies that showed that exposure to insecticides harms various systems in the body - especially the nervous system, which the organophosphates affect. Agricultural workers are the primary casualties of the substances, as are pregnant women living in agricultural areas.

Since the middle of the previous decade there has been a fivefold increase in the number of residents' complaints about the impact of insecticide use, which are referred to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority's poison monitoring department. More than half the complaints were from residents of central Israel, apparently because of the accelerated pace of construction of new neighborhoods on land in moshavim and kibbutzim, which reduced the distance between residents' homes and agricultural plots.

The state comptroller's report sharply criticized the lack of action to reduce the number of insecticides permitted and the failure to deal with the exposure of residential areas to insecticides from agricultural areas. The comptroller noted that past restrictions on the use of insecticides near residential areas were insufficient, and stressed they should be tightened and better enforced.

The Agriculture Ministry announced in response that it is working to obtain approval of new guidelines that would ban the use of insecticides within 100 meters of homes, and require the ground to be covered with plastic sheeting at distances of 100-350 meters from residential areas.

The Environmental Protection Ministry noted that a study it commissioned from the Technion to simulate the spread of insecticides is soon to be completed. Based on the results, decisions will be made regarding steps to protect the population.

The comptroller's report mentioned the problem of the proximity of residential areas to agricultural plots in Moshav Ahituv in the Sharon region. The moshav is surrounded by cucumber hothouses and several homes there are only a few meters away from them. "Every gust of wind brings insecticide and disinfectant particles into the residents' homes every day," the comptroller noted. "The residents approached Israel Nature and Parks Authority rangers numerous times due to concern over the long-term impact of the substances."

Hezi Daniel, the head of the agriculture association on Ahituv, said this week that the moshav's farmers are careful to use only insecticides approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and to follow the restrictions on distances set. "We all live with our families on the moshav, and it's very important to us not to create a health risk," he explained."However, we have no control over the smell and the way the wind spreads it."

Daniel noted that in the past the farmers used the pesticide methyl bromide, but stopped this after it was found to damage the ozone layer, and its substitutes emit a stronger smell.

Recent studies found that various insecticides not only affect the nervous system but also cognitive and behavioral skills in children. Health Ministry officials explained this week that most of the affected children are the offspring of women who worked in agriculture or lived in a farming community, and were exposed in the womb to organophosphates.

The impact of banning certain insecticides can be seen in a study published recently in the U.S. indicating a decrease in the concentration of insecticides in human urine samples in the years after a ban was imposed. One of the substances banned is diazinon, which the Health Ministry this week included on the list of substances whose use will be restricted.

Health Ministry officials said they still do not have data on the level of exposure to insecticides and its impact on health. Prof. Yoram Finkelstein, the director of Shaare Zedek Medical Center's Neurology and Toxicology Unit and Service, has been investigating this issue and Amit Ophir, a PhD student, is conducting the study under his supervision. Recently they presented their preliminary findings at Harvard University.

The researchers tried to assess the health impact of rural communities' exposure to insecticides by comparing a group living in an area with increased pesticide exposure to one living in an area with less exposure. They distributed questionnaires to the residents, who reported various medical problems. Finkelstein noted that a link was found between proximity to fields and attention deficit disorders. According to him, these are not clear-cut statistical findings because they use a relatively small population sample, but it is still possible to estimate that they reflect a trend.

Another Israeli study conducted some two years ago found an exceptional rate of Parkinson's Disease patients in Baka al-Garbiyeh, apparently because of exposure to insecticides in the vicinity.

The Public Health Coalition, which operates in the north of the country and the Haifa Bay area last week called on the ministries to act urgently to reduce the public's exposure to chemicals. The coalition noted that senior officials of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recently issued a statement calling for additional studies of the link between chemicals and neurological damage in children, and an increase in the instance of autism. The list of chemicals to be studied also includes two types of insecticides.