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From time to time the media headlines serious findings concerning health hazards in the Negev, ostensibly linked to the Ramat Hovav industrial zone. Last week, for example, Yedioth Ahronoth published a report on a sharp increase in the incidence of cancer in the Negev.

The environmental organizations jump at such news items, and use them to up their demands for environmental quality. Ironically, however, these organizations play into the hands of the factory owners in that they accept the factory owners' approach - that anybody that claims the factories are a health hazard must prove such claims scientifically.

Industry representatives know very well how to evaluate the publication of the proofs of damage found by the researchers. The first line of defense is an attack against the researchers themselves, who are usually cautious about declaring a causative connection between the Ramat Hovav plants and health problems. Experts hired by the industrialists hasten to note that the findings are not statistically unequivocal. Even if statistical absoluteness existed, claim those experts, it is impossible to conclude that there is a causative link between the incidence of a disease and proximity to Ramat Hovav.

The experts are also well aware that it is difficult to neutralize the influence of socioeconomic factors such as place of residence (near Ramat Hovav), occupation, smoking and nutrition habits and still clearly determine that there is a causative relationship between exposure to chemical substances and a rise in the incidence of cancer. This is similar to the situation in the Haifa Bay area, where there has been an increase in the incidence of cancer.

Israeli experts can also rely on prominent scientific opinions from around the world, which in some cases undermine the scientific basis of the causative relationship between pollution and cancer. Another group of scientists, including Prof. Eliahu Richter of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, published an article last year in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine proving that some scientists had published their opinions at the request and sponsorship of several of the worlds largest chemical conglomerates.

The second line of defense employed by the representatives of the industries states that even if there is a statistical or causative connection, the exposure to pollution occurred two decades ago or more, when the environmental reality was completely different. Since then, more advanced measures are used to prevent pollution, and the air pollution detection devices operated by the Ramat Hovav local council almost always indicate very low concentrations of pollution. Recently, every factory built a new effluent purification facility, and the national hazardous waste site, located in Ramat Hovav, operates in an orderly fashion and no longer pollutes the environment.

The industry chiefs have greater difficulty, however, contending with indisputable facts: that their industries emit toxic substances that are potentially hazardous to health and the environment, and that the Ramat Hovav area houses serious odor nuisances from the emission of various substances into the air.

There is also no argument that a malfunction at a plant could cause the emission of substances that pose an immediate danger, as happened about a month ago when there was an explosion at one of the plants.

Stricter environmental demands should be defined based on these facts, and a struggle waged until the demands are met. These demands should include the comprehensive treatment of all the sources of emissions into the air, and the treatment of the effluents, to guarantee the disappearance of the odor nuisance. The permitted levels of pollution should also be lowered to the levels demanded of factories in Europe.

It is not the job of the residents and the public organizations to provide proof of health damage caused by the industrial plants. It is rather the obligation of the plants to reduce their impact on the environment, and the Environment and Health ministries' duty to enforce the appropriate requirements.