1,250 Israelis Die Each Year From Pollution-related Cancer

Disease incidence in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva areas much higher than anticipated, according to Health Ministry report

Environmental pollution causes death by cancer of 1,250 Israelis every year, according to the draft of a Health Ministry Report released yesterday.

The report is based on epidemiological estimates from the West, especially from the United States. These figures suggest that between 3 percent and 8 percent of all cancers are caused by environmental pollutants. The main culprits are vehicle and industrial pollution, but water and soil contamination are also implicated. According to Health Ministry statistics, every year about 25,000 new cases of cancer are discovered, including 450 cases affecting children.

The latest report includes an ecological survey that maps the incidence of cancer in the 2001-2005 by region. It revealed particularly high rates of cancer in three "morbidity clusters" that correspond with three major urban areas: Haifa and its bayside suburbs, Greater Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva and environs. During the period surveyed, the rate of cancer in these areas was between 12 percent and 26 percent higher than expected for the size of the population. The morbidity clusters are characterized by intense urbanization (mainly in Haifa and Tel Aviv), and increased vehicular traffic. Some of the residential areas within the clusters are close to large industrial zones where very large amounts of hazardous materials, some of which are known carcinogens, are in use.

According to the report, cancer rates in the Haifa area in the 1997-2005 period were 22 percent higher than expected. In Greater Tel Aviv, cancer rates are increasing steadily and in 2005 were 20 percent higher than expected for the size of the population. In the area around Be'er Sheva, the study revealed an increase of between 18 percent and 26 percent in comparison to 2001. The most common cancers in this cluster were cancers of the breast, bladder, colon, lungs, brain and nervous system.

Health Ministry figures indicate that the cancer rate in Be'er Sheva, especially among men, is the highest in Israel. The report points to a clear connection in Israel between high rates of urbanization and high incidence of cancer, in keeping with figures from the West. A senior Health Ministry official pointed out yesterday, however, that since the Be'er Sheva region is not highly urbanized and has far less vehicles than the Tel Aviv region, it is likely that the reason for its high cancer rates is at least partly due to the proximity of residential areas to industrial areas using large numbers of hazardous and carcinogenic materials, such as the factories in the Ramat Hovav industrial area.

The authors of the survey determined that known risk factors for cancer such as smoking, advanced age, ethnic background, socioeconomic status and the timing of early detection methods do not explain most of the cancer morbidity in the three cancer clusters. The communities with the lowest rates of cancer during the survey period were the areas around Hadera, Netanya, Petah Tikva, Ramle, Rehovot and Ashkelon. The cancer rates in Jerusalem, Safed, the Lake Kinneret area and Acre were in line with statistical projections.

The figures were announced at a press conference held yesterday by the Israel Cancer Association to draw attention to the organization's annual door-to-door fund-raising campaign, which will take place next Monday. The figures were presented by Dr. Micha Barhana, director of the Health Ministry's Cancer Registry and the principal author of the draft report. The authors of the report noted that while the survey does not prove a causal relationship between factors such as environmental pollution and the cancer morbidity rate, it is likely that the high cancer rates in the three clusters "stems if not mainly then at least partly from environmental pollution."

Health Ministry officials called for action to reduce exposure to environmental carcinogens, especially within the cancer clusters.

"It is not right to wait for incontrovertible scientific proof (which may not come for several years) before taking active steps to reduce environmental exposures in general and in the morbidity clusters in particular, especially when Israel has knowledge about air pollution in those areas."

According to the survey, the most common cancers in Israel are breast cancer in women (4,000 new cases a year); cancer of the colon and the rectum (3,000 new cases); prostate cancer (2,000 new cases); lung cancer (1,500 new cases); lymphoma (1,300 new cases); skin cancer (1,200 new cases); bladder cancer (1,100 new cases); cancer of the brain, kidney, blood and stomach (600 new cases annually for each cancer); pancreatic cancer (500 new cases) and uterine cancer (400 new cases).