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Israelis living close to areas in which pesticides are heavily used are suffering long-term nerve damage, a government-appointed panel said yesterday.

The figures came out of a study conducted by a public committee on reducing damage caused by pesticides, headed by former Supreme Court justice Yaakov Turkel.

The panel, which includes government figures, was created at the initiative of Tel Aviv University researchers and the bird-watching center at the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel. The panel members met for their first meeting two weeks ago, and addressed the study by Prof. Yoram Finkelstein of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on the dangers posed by pesticide use.

Finkelstein said that recent years have seen an upswing in the use of organic pesticides containing phosphorus, which can harm the human nervous system.

"The studies that have been done illustrate the risk that long-term exposure, even to a low level of pest-control substances, leads to damage, not only to those using the substances but also to individuals living in agricultural communities," Finkelstein said, adding that such communities show a higher than normal rate of children afflicted with attention disorders.

Committee member Dr. Noam Leader, a Nature and Parks Authority ecologist, said that this year 120 cases of animals being poisoned from pesticides were discovered. Most of the cases, however, involved intentional poisoning, in order to prevent damage to agricultural fields or as the result of disputes between farmers.

Leader expressed concern over the fact that nature authority inspectors are consistently exposed to substances which can be lethal when they come in contact with a person's skin.

"This is an everyday danger to inspectors as well as hikers," he said.

Participants in the discussion said many farmers in Israel do not use pesticides properly, but those found acting in violation of extermination regulations are only lightly penalized.

"If an inspector doesn't catch the farmer in the act of poisoning, he doesn't have a case in court," he said.

In addition, over the past five years, instances of poisoning have led to the near-total extermination of scavenger birds in northern Israel. In many cases, vultures fed on the carcasses of animals contaminated with pesticides.

"This year, fifty cranes were poisoned in the north," said Dr. Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University, who pushed for the committee's creation. "There were two rare birds spotted which fed on the carcasses of cranes, but we don't know what happened to them in the end."

Leshem said the panel would try to formulate recommendations for changing the process of legislation and enforcement so that the farmers using dangerous pesticides in a manner harmful to humans and animals receive heftier penalties.

"When there is significant poisoning of vultures, a special police investigative team must be put into action to find those responsible, and put them on trial," he said.