Asbestos
A sign warning of asbestos danger in Nahariya. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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High asbestos levels in the Nahariya area could cause serious genetic damage to animals and even humans, a recent study found.

Researchers from Haifa University at Oranim found that rats exposed to a high concentration of asbestos have higher rates of genetic mutation than those in areas with no significant asbestos levels.

Dr. Rachel Ben-Shlomo and Dr. Uri Shanas conducted genetic tests on 24 rats from areas near the spot where the Eitanit factory used to stand. Eitanit is the only asbestos producer in Israel.

They compared their results to those of a similar study conducted on 68 rats near Kiryat Tivon, in an area free of asbestos about 50 kilometers from Nahariya.

Researchers hypothesize that the Nahariya rats descended from rats exposed to asbestos several generations ago. Those rats could have been exposed to asbestos via breathing or through the digestive system.

The study found that rats collected around the Eitanit facility had high rates of genetic mutations, unlike those from unpolluted areas. According to Shanas, these differences do not necessarily point to health damage already incurred by the rats. However, the fact that there is a high level of mutation could eventually contribute to the development of cancerous tumors, Shanas said.

Rats in the Nahariya area share more similar genetic codes than rats in the other study area, suggesting that asbestos exposure might have damaged their DNA.

This study is not the first to point to genetic damage caused by exposure to asbestos. Similar studies have been conducted around the globe. For years, medical experts and scientists have known that breathing asbestos can be linked to various forms of cancer, including mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that most commonly affects the lungs. This is particularly true of workers involved in the manufacture of asbestos products. Experts believe that the incidence level of mesothelioma is high in the Nahariya area.

The asbestos factory in Nahariya operated until 1997, selling residents in the area asbestos products used for paving roads. After the plant was shut down, the Environmental Protection Ministry and environmental groups started conducting tests to determine contamination levels in the area. Surveys found that the Western Galilee has several locations with high asbestos levels. A few months ago, the Environmental Protection Ministry initiated a long-term project to clean up asbestos and transport asbestos remains to proper storage and waste facilities.