Experts Slam 'Panic-inducing' Reports Into Health Study on Haifa Babies

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The Oil Refineries site in Haifa.
The Oil Refineries site in Haifa.Credit: Rami Shllush

Media reports of a study that purportedly found that babies born in Haifa’s most polluted areas had significantly lower birth weights and smaller heads than those in less polluted areas came under fire Monday both from people involved in the study and outside experts.

Channel 2 television, which first reported the story on Sunday, said the study showed that babies born to residents of Haifa’s most polluted areas have birth weights and head sizes 20 to 30 percent lower than those born to residents of cleaner parts of Haifa. Moreover, it said, among adult residents of these areas, the incidence of lung cancer and lymphoma is up to five times the national average.

But sources on the study’s own steering committee, as well as outside medical experts, said the data in question was raw, preliminary data that hadn’t yet been confirmed or scientifically reviewed. Consequently, they accused the media of sowing unnecessary panic.

In response to the report, a meeting was set to take place last night with officials from the health and environmental protection ministries. Also summoned to attend were the study’s lead researchers, Prof. Boris Portnov and Dr. Jonathan Dubnov, from the University of Haifa.

Some people Monday accused the researchers of keeping mum about the data for fear that the five-year study on the impact of Haifa’s air pollution on health, which began last year, would be canceled. But sources close to the researchers said the only barrier to publishing the data is the fact that the findings haven’t yet been approved by the steering committee.

Nonetheless, other people familiar with the study are speaking out – and challenging Channel 2’s report.

“The data were presented at a meeting of the [steering] committee in December, and members of the steering committee didn’t approve them, because we’re talking about a preliminary statistical and epidemiological model that still has flaws. And the chances are high that it will turn out that there really aren’t any significant differences, or any differences at all, among babies’ weights and head sizes in different parts of Haifa,” said one expert who sits on the steering committee. “In any case, the figure of 20 to 30 percent is baseless.”

“An epidemiological study is complex and includes a constant process of review and refinement to reflect the reality,” added another steering committee member. “When the data were presented to us, we didn’t accept them and told the researchers they should continue investigating and improve the research model so it would reflect reality.”

Sources in the Health Ministry’s Haifa District headquarters also said they weren’t concerned by the findings.

“We aren’t worried because there aren’t yet any findings from the study,” one senior official said. “If there had been, they’d have been shown to us. Someone interpreted the preliminary raw data as findings. That’s a mistake.”

The study was commissioned by the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection – a body funded entirely by the polluting factories themselves. The association issued a tender for conducting the study two years ago, and researchers from the University of Haifa won it.

Altogether, some 20 researchers are taking part in the study. They are divided into four groups, each focusing on pollution-related illnesses in a different segment of the population – newborns, children, teenagers and adults.

Most of the research groups haven’t yet submitted any findings. The findings presented by Channel 2 on Sunday night come from a presentation to the steering committee, and are based on data for babies born in the Haifa region in 2014, as recorded by the area’s well-baby clinics. The researchers have data for about 6,000 of the 8,965 babies born in the Haifa district that year.

But the data hasn’t yet been subjected to detailed analysis to determine whether, for instance, the difference in birth weights in different parts of the city stems mainly from pollution, or from genetic or socioeconomic differences among the inhabitants of different neighborhoods.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav on Monday termed the data worrisome, saying he heard about them for the first time from the media. “We’ve been working on this issue for some time independent of the data and the media reports,” he added.

Yahav denied allegations that he had sought to interfere in the study, noting that the municipality was involved in getting the research started and saying he had every intention of honoring the agreement signed with the researchers.

“The study’s interim findings will be published on time and with all due transparency,” he said. “Anyone who claims otherwise is misleading the public.”

As for claims that the research suffers from an inherent conflict of interest because it is indirectly funded by the polluters themselves, he responded, “The Health Ministry is the agency leading the study and responsible for it, so you need to ask it that.”

Yahav also claimed that the municipality is the only party fighting a proposed expansion of the Haifa-based Oil Refineries. He alleged that various government officials voted for the proposal at a meeting last week. Yahav vowed to petition the High Court of Justice if the proposal ultimately passes.

“I personally closed Oil Refineries, but a court ordered it reopened,” he said. “I intend to continue fighting for the health of greater Haifa residents. We’re talking about a third of Israel’s population – from Acre and Kiryat Ata, Kiryat Motzkin and Kiryat Bialik to Nesher and Kiryat Tivon!”

Also Monday, MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union) demanded a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the health and environmental failures that resulted in such high incidence of disease in the Haifa Bay area.

“Over the last two years, frightening epidemiological studies and data on illnesses have emerged, casting a huge question mark over government programs to deal with the environmental and health disaster occurring in Haifa Bay,” she said. “The question that must be asked is whether the government is doing enough and focusing on the right issues. The time has come to declare Haifa Bay an environmental disaster area and establish a parliamentary committee of inquiry that will thoroughly investigate the circumstances that brought the bay to this state, examine what actions have been taken to date to deal with this disaster, think deeply and comprehensively about its future and propose drastic, acute action to change this situation.

“Is it conceivable that while residents of the north are dying due to industry, the Environmental Protection Ministry is dealing with transportation?” she continued. “Is it conceivable that planning institutions and the Environmental Protection Ministry will allow Oil Refineries to expand by 20 percent? Was it right to approve establishing a big port and expanding fuel and chemical storage facilities instead of building a different, cleaner, industrial horizon for bay area residents? Why, instead of immediately shutting down the dangerous ammonia tank – which serves a private company that exports its produce – has establishment of an alternative solution been postponed again and again?”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, meanwhile, promised the Environmental Protection Ministry that “When it comes to public health and reducing air pollution in Haifa Bay, there will be no shortage of financial resources, and the Environmental Protection Ministry will receive full backing for whatever actions it takes.

“We must deal with this environmental hazard that began back in the days of the British Mandate and hasn’t been suitably addressed by successive Israeli governments,” he added. “In contrast to our predecessors, we are committed to the residents of Haifa and the north, and the steps we have already taken indicate our direction better than anything else.”

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