Researchers to Study Link Between Disease and Pollution in Haifa

The Health Ministry, a participant in the new study, has already called for tougher limits on emissions in advance of a new plan to increase Haifa Bay fuel production.

Yaron Kaminsky

An epidemiological study focusing on the connection between the high incidence of disease in Haifa Bay and the level of air pollution in this heavily industrial area was launched on Tuesday. The study is to be conducted by researchers from the University of Haifa in cooperation with the Health Ministry

However, the ministry – which has already determined that there is a casual relationship between the high rate of illness around Haifa Bay and air-pollution levels – is already calling for stricter limitations on emissions in new municipal plans to increase local fuel production and storage.

Last week, the head of the ministry’s public health service, Itamar Grotto, submitted the ministry’s position on the planned expansion of the refinery facilities in the northern Israeli city, before the appeals committee of the National Planning and Building Council.

In the presentation, made in advance of other appeals that are expected to be filed against the expansion scheme, Grotto noted the accumulation of existing findings regarding high pollution levels in Haifa and the above-average incidence of disease there.

Two months ago, the Health Ministry advisory committee on environmental epidemiology confirmed the existence of a causal link between pollution and illness in Haifa. The committee includes representatives of the public and government ministries, as well as air pollution experts, medical professionals, etc.

Professionals at the Health Ministry attach great importance to long-term epidemiological studies such as the one launched on Tuesday. By studying phenomena over an extensive period, researchers are better able to understand the relationship between the environment and disease, and to determine which pollutants are actually causing illnesses, they say.

High cancer, heart-attack rates

Cancer rates in the Haifa Bay area continue to be higher year after year than in other parts of the country, the ministry reports, and these include significantly higher rates of lung cancer in this waterside subdistrict. (Another main cause of lung cancer is, of course, smoking.)

The Haifa Bay subdistrict also has the highest rate in Israel of heart attacks (32 cases per 1,000, compared to a national average of 22), and the city itself has the highest rate of heart attacks of all of the country's six largest cities. Researchers have already found a link between air-pollution levels and cardiac-related emergency room visits to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, as well.

There is also new empirical data regarding the concentration of cancer-causing substances, a substantial portion of which are emitted from fuel production and storage facilities: In the Haifa area these amounts exceed the recommended maximum levels set to minimize health-related risks. In the past two years, for example, researchers have detected concentrations of carcinogenic substances such as formaldehyde and butadiene that are four to six times greater than the maximum levels permitted.

As a result of the existing figures, and in anticipation of new data, the Health Ministry is recommending conditioning any future building permits at the Haifa Bay refinery complex on guarantees that any new facilities will not ratchet up air-pollution levels. The Haifa district planning council, which initially approved expansion of the facilities, has imposed similar conditions.

Last week, the management of Oil Refineries Ltd. (Bazan, in Hebrew), the largest refinery in Haifa Bay, reported that during the last two years, it has taken steps to substantially reduce air pollution. For example, emissions of nitrogen oxide, which has been linked to illness, have been reduced from 161 kilograms per hour to 73 kilograms, it reported. There has apparently also been a substantial reduction in sulfur-oxide levels and in the amount of potentially dangerous particulates in the air, thanks to the shift to using natural gas. Oil Refineries Ltd. is currently building two new facilities that are designed to substantially reduce emissions of toxic substances.

Appeal proceedings are currently under way in protest of an additional plan for the Haifa Bay area that would group fuel-storage facilities together, adjacent to the existing refineries. One of the appeals was filed by environmental epidemiologist Ella Naveh, who believes that such a scheme could lead to increased pollution levels.