Don't Be Fooled: Haifa's Pollution Problem Is Very Real

Despite Health Ministry retraction of earlier report stating link between pollution and cancer rates in children, there's no reason to breathe a sigh of relief.

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Haifa's Oil Refineries Ltd.
Haifa's Oil Refineries Ltd. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

After a stormy week in which Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and city residents faced off squarely against the area’s polluting industries, the Health Ministry issued an important correction: The incidence of cancer among Haifa-area children is no higher than the national average. It took a week for the ministry to admit that its earlier report on the subject was unfounded.

But the fact that it finally did so is no reason to breathe a sigh of relief (or to breathe Haifa’s polluted air at all). The correction may be good news from the standpoint of scientific integrity, but from a broader perspective, it’s actually bad news for Haifa residents: This admission killed the unprecedented public and media momentum that had been generated to finally tackle the metropolitan area’s number-one problem – the very real pollution around Haifa Bay.

Even if the ministry’s presentation of the facts with regard to cancer rates in children was negligent, there’s no debate over one crucial fact: Air pollution is a health hazard. Thus, there are many good reasons to battle for improved air quality for Haifa residents, even in the absence of worrisome data on the narrow issue of cancer incidence among children. There’s more than one disease that can shorten a life.

In this context, it’s worth recalling a few salient statistics. First, the incidence of cancer in the Haifa area rose steadily from 2001 to 2011, and among adults, it’s around 15 percent higher than the national average. The incidence of lung cancer in Haifa is 26 percent higher than the national average among women and 16 percent higher among men. Breast cancer is 6 percent more common in Haifa and prostate cancer is 8 percent more common. Incidence of colon cancer is 15 percent higher than the national average among men and 21 percent higher among women.

As for children, cancer rates in Haifa are no higher than the national average, and in some cases even lower. But years of Health Ministry data show that children are hospitalized in Haifa at worrying high rates due to asthma and other respiratory diseases. One study showed a clear connection between air pollution and the incidence of asthma among Haifa teens aged 14 to 16, finding that this incidence was 2.5 times higher than in areas with lower air pollution, even when Haifa’s pollution didn’t exceed permitted levels.

If all this is forgotten due to the “soothing” correction put out by the Health Ministry, it will turn out that fixing the ministry’s mistake was actually the biggest and most harmful mistake that could have been made in terms of its impact on Haifa residents. There are too many important reasons for the battle against pollution to continue. 

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