Haifa Bay Area Residents Suffer Excess of Diseases, Says Health Ministry

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The Carmel Olefins factory blaze, June 2014. Haifa residents are concerned over a spate of recent accidents.Credit: Liora Amiti

The Haifa area has a higher rate of sicknesses than the national average, according to Israel's Health Ministry.

The ministry listed heart diseases, respiratory diseases and a worsening of asthma among children, as well as cancer among adults, as the main problems. The position paper was written in December but only distributed on Tuesday.

The timing of the publication is seemingly related to a court case hearing on Tuesday regarding the Haifa municipality's decision to issue a closure order against the Carmel Olefins factory, which had burnt large amounts of gas that turned into smoke, polluted the bay and created a panic among regional residents.

However, Itamar Grotto, manager of the ministry's Public Health Services, said the timing of the publication with the court case was purely coincidental. "There isn't really any new information here, but we thought that confusion had been created, so we decided to concentrate all the data in organized fashion in a report and to pass it on to decision makers," he told Haaretz.

The report mentions epidemiological studies on the Haifa area that found initial evidence of a correlation between air pollution, both from industry and traffic, and respiratory, heart and blood vessel diseases as well as cancer. "These studies are limited by quality and scope, but their findings were consistent," the report stated.

Health Ministry officials note that according to the World Health Organization and other international health organizations, air pollution was proven unequivocally as a source of disease and mortality in heart and blood vessel diseases, respiratory diseases and a number of strains of cancer.   

"According to the environmental emissions registry, non-methane volatile organic compounds are released into Haifa Bay at the highest level in Israel," the report stated. "Still, the monitoring picture of volatile organic compounds is insufficient to evaluate the exposure of the area population to these compounds, and there is a need to expand monitoring and testing of these compounds in the area in order to receive an exact and up-to-date picture of the situation." Health Ministry officials are recommending in wake of the report to continue working on reducing air pollution in the Haifa Bay area.

Meanwhile, Health Ministry experts are not satisfied with the level of monitoring and research on the issue. The scientific committee of the health and environment ministries called last August for a halt to funding of comprehensive research for monitoring and researching pollution in Haifa Bay. The committee's report bitterly criticized the research, which had begun a year earlier and was meant to last five years.

"There should be no more funding for the research, in its present format, for the second and following years," the report stated. The committee also asserted that there were many shortcomings in the findings from the first year of research, so "they cannot constitute a basis for evaluating illness and the correlation between air pollution and the illness situation in the Haifa Bay."

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