Haifa University Rebuffs Critics as Research Team Stands by Pollution Study

Experts sharply criticize study that found, based on preliminary evidence, that babies living in polluted areas are born with smaller than average head size.

The Oil Refineries site in Haifa.
Rami Shllush

The University of Haifa on Tuesday rebuffed criticism of a study conducted by its researchers, who found that babies born at three city locations in which pollution is high are underweight, with head circumferences that are 20%-30% lower than in other neighborhoods.

“The research team stands by its findings and methodology, which was pre-approved by a professional committee that included representatives of the Health Ministry and the Ministry for Environmental Protection,” said university officials yesterday. Preliminary findings of the study were disclosed on Sunday on Channel 2.

Over the last two days, the study was assailed by professionals in the field, who also decried the manner in which it was presented in the media. The general nature of the announcement released by the researchers did not dispel the lack of clarity surrounding the findings or the methodology used in this study. Haifa University and the Igud Arim Haifa Bay municipal association for environmental protection asked the researchers not to give media interviews for now.

A senior source involved in monitoring and supervising the study stated that “data indicating a 20%-30% reduction head circumference is non-existent and was never presented.” A member of the study’s steering committee told Haaretz that the “worrisome finding about weight and head size is not grounded in reality. If this were true, we wouldn’t need the study and would discover it just as the Zika virus was detected.”

The study was presented to Health Ministry officials, including Minister Yaakov Litzman, yesterday morning. Afterwards, Litzman requested that the results not be discussed since they were raw and preliminary. Top ministry officials decided to closely monitor the continuance of the study. Several officials expressed their discontent with the manner in which it was being conducted, and a list of comments on the methodology was drawn up. For example, they noted the way data related to premature babies and parents was addressed. Ministry officials also pointed to methodological problems in relating aerial pollution to preliminary results.

The Haifa municipal council was scheduled to hold a special meeting last night to discuss the study and its findings. Litzman and Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay were expected to attend. A demonstration by residents was expected to be held outside city hall, in protest against high levels of pollution in the area.

The head of public health disease prevention at the Health Ministry, Itamar Grotto, said on Army Radio that the study did not present all its findings and suggested that the data released so far be disregarded. “We are examining the methodology and the clinical implications of the findings,” he said. “Following conversations with the researchers we can state that the data is still incomplete.”

Similar comments were made by members of the study’s steering committee, as well as by physicians and epidemiologists. They all said the data was preliminary and had not been scientifically validated yet, unnecessarily sowing panic.

“It is quite likely that ultimately no real differences will emerge in weight and head circumference in different areas of Haifa. In any case, a 20%-30% difference is baseless,” said a committee member.

Haifa University rejected the criticism and said that the full results will be submitted to a professional committee in March. A meeting with Litzman and Gabbay concluded that the findings released so far were not final.

The study of pollution’s effects on health commenced last March and is planned to last five years. The troubling Haifa University data surfaced at a presentation given before the steering committee, and was based on statistics relating to 6,000 babies born in 2014 in the Haifa area. No detailed results were presented that related to disparities in weight and head circumference, or to their clinical implications and a possible attribution to aerial pollution.