Odor of Neglect

Israeli-Arab Towns Suffer From Garbage Hazards

School students are often the ones most directly exposed to the pollution caused by waste-burning.

Emil Salman

Several Arab communities in Israel suffer from health and environmental hazards caused by waste dumping, trash burning and compost. The Environmental Protection Ministry has recently launched a plan to dispose of waste hazards in the Arab communities, where the problem is especially acute, but in many places the residents still suffer from heavy pollution.

On the first day of school this week Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz visited schools whose curriculum includes environmental studies. The minister would have done better to also visit that day the Ibn Rushd school in the Galilee local council of Jedeida Makker, near Acre. Here he could have seen at first hand the distress of students and teachers who are frequently exposed to environmental hazards.

As in many other Arab communities, the Jedeida Makker region has numerous waste hazards that pollute the air and spread foul odors. Local authorities lack the administrative and financial resources to treat the waste and the law-enforcement authorities fail to deal with the perpetrators. Since numerous schools are on their communities’ outskirts, the students are usually the ones directly exposed to the pollution.

The students at Ibn Rushd school have often suffered nausea, vomiting and stomach aches caused by odors. The school’s directors and residents have recently tried to fight the hazard with the help of the environmental NGO Adam Teva V’Din. The NGO submitted a list of the hazards to the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Northern District head Dorit Zis. These include bad odors, probably emitted by compost derived from waste fertilizers used in the area’s fields and from the burning of various kinds of waste in areas around the community. The illegally-dumped garbage in these areas includes animal carcasses, construction debris and household waste. At one of these sites, mattresses are burned at least once a month to extract their metal springs, and the residents say the wind carries the smoke into their homes. Another site is used to burn tires, and the smells and toxic chemicals are also carried by the wind directly into people’s homes.

Adam Teva V’Din’s representative wrote to the ministry that despite the ministry’s steps to stop the trash pirates, the pollution is continuing and has become even worse.

“This has been going on in the past few days as well and sometimes the odors are felt for several days,” says Bilal Kial, the school’s junior high principal.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said in response that it has issued orders to the local council to clean up the waste, and is investigating the matter with the help of police officers. As for hazards related to spreading farming fertilizer, the ministry said it has no authority to prevent it and there’s no binding standard for waste compost.

Ministry officials also said they had received no complaints of odor hazards from Jedeida Makker this year, but the problem is worse than ever, as the school principal said.

Under Peretz’s leadership, the ministry has been helping Arab local authorities by stepping up law enforcement against polluters and allocating funds for waste-disposal infrastructure. However, these steps are clearly inadequate and the distress caused by the waste hazards is still acute. One visit to the Taibeh and Kalansua region is enough to see the variety of hazards that threaten the residents’ health and quality of life.

The ministry said Jedeida Makker was not among the communities chosen to take part in the first phase of the government-aid plan that was launched to dispose of garbage in the Arab communities. The ministry is now advancing the plan’s second phase, which will include additional local authorities.

Hazards stemming from construction debris and odors caused by compost dispersal are not unique to the Arab communities. In the past two years residents of the south have complained several times of odor hazards caused by fertilizers originating from animal secretions.

Burning trash in the open is a universal practice with widespread environmental and health repercussions, according to a recent study published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology. Conducted by researchers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Montana, the study set out to assess the universal scope of pollutants emitted by burning waste.

The researchers believe that burning trash in the open makes up a significant part of the world’s air pollution. For example, it contributes more than a quarter of all pollutant particles that penetrate the respiratory system. It also causes the emission of about a tenth of the amount of mercury, an extremely toxic metal.

It is believed that 41 percent of the garbage created in the world is disposed of by fire in open areas. The problem is much more acute in developing countries. Several countries underestimate the severity of problems caused by air pollution, because they don’t take into account pollution from waste sites. In many cases these sites emit a wide variety of toxic substances that pose a high health risk.