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The Environmental Protection Ministry has detected abnormally high concentrations of the carcinogenic compound benzene in the air at gas stations across metropolitan Tel Aviv.

According to the findings of a ministry survey, the high amounts of benzene are attributed to the inadequate functioning of filtering systems designed to reduce gasoline fumes near the pumps.

The ministry said it will launch a criminal investigation of the owners of the gas stations showing such fumes.

The ministry's findings appeared yesterday in the new editions of the monthly journal Ecology and Environment, which is published by the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Studies with financial assistance from the Environmental Protection Ministry and other eco-friendly organizations.

In the journal article, Tzachi Asa, who serves as the ministry's air quality coordinator for the Tel Aviv district, reveals that in the summer of 2009, the authorities positioned specially equipped trace detectors at 15 major traffic junctions to measure the amount of airborne materials and pollutants.

The experiment yielded findings that indicated that benzene particles four times the recommended limit were present in the air.

It found that the levels of benzene dropped the further the distance from the gas pump, although dangerous amounts of the compound were still detected at a distance of 30 meters from the station.

Within the next year, the ministry plans to announce new regulatory guidelines that would put legal limits on the permitted concentrations of airborne benzene.

Benzene is widely recognized as a poisonous substance, and exposure to it has been linked to such illnesses as leukemia. It is known to be a basic petrochemical and a natural constituent of crude oil.

Benzene is also one of the compounds essential in the creation of ozone, the gas that hovers above the earth's surface and is considered toxic to the human respiratory system. Gas station employees are at greatest risk of exposure to gas fumes.

As part of an effort to reduce exposure to benzene, the ministry in recent years required gas stations to install a system known as Shlav 1, which is designed to suck in gas fumes generated by underground containers and store them in fuel tankers.

Gas stations located near residential areas were ordered to install filters (Shlav 2 ) which collected gas fumes from cars being fueled at the pump. These fumes are then channeled to underground containers. Half of all gas stations in the Tel Aviv area are equipped with both filtering mechanisms.

The 2009 study showed that the filtering systems were not working as efficiently as required, thus prompting the ministry to launch another survey to gauge the manner in which these systems were being operated.

According to the latest survey, the ministry found that in some gas stations the filters were either improperly activated or were not being used at all.

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan recently directed all gas stations in Israel to equip themselves with the Shlav 2 system by September 2015.