Israel's Health Ministry: We’ve Known About Haifa Cancer Problem for Years

Public health chief admits ministry has been aware of excess of morbidity since end of 2014; researcher presents findings into impact of environmental pollution on northern Israeli city.

Haifa oil refineries.
Yaron Kaminsky

The Health Ministry acknowledged Monday that officials have known for several years about an excess of morbidity in Haifa due to cancer, asthma and heart problems.

Speaking at a meeting of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, public health chief Itamar Grotto said the ministry has known about the morbidity problem in Haifa since the end of 2014.

Monday’s hearing was convened in the wake of a Channel 2 television exposé last week about the impact of environmental pollution on Haifa residents. That report cited a recent study by researchers from the University of Haifa, which claimed smaller head circumferences and lower birth weights were recorded for babies in the most heavily polluted areas of the northern city.

Prof. Boris Portnov, who headed the research team behind the report, on Monday presented the principal findings from the first year of research.

Portnov did not cite numbers or specific places in the Haifa region, but noted that, according to initial findings, there are differences in morbidity and environmental factors that point at “hot spots” in which morbidity is higher relative to the surrounding average.

According to Portnov, the main sources of excess morbidity are lung cancer and lymphoma among adults, asthma among children ages 6-14, as well as infant head circumference and weight.

“We found there is a correlation between morbidity and the environmental situation in the area,” said Portnov. “I intentionally say environmental situation and not necessarily air pollution, because this correlation is not definitive and there are other factors,” he added.

“We are doing our best to prepare the data to present a report in March,” he continued. “At this stage, we have not completed the report and I prefer not to discuss exact numbers – because every number has significance and it scares the public, which does not always understand the data fully.”

Public health chief Prof. Itamar Grotto.
Moti Milrod

The statistic that created the biggest public furor last week was the data on three sites in the Haifa region – Tivon, Kiryat Bialik and the Carmel (on the industry-facing side) – that have a much higher prevalence (20-30%) of babies being born with a small head circumference and are underweight, relative to other neighborhoods. The data, collected in 2014, indicated a circumference gap of between 1-2 millimeters: boys’ heads ranged from 34.5-34.9 centimeters, while girls’ heads ranged from 34.01-34.05 centimeters.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay both attended Monday’s meeting.

Last week, doctors from the Israel Pediatric Association met with the researchers to personally examine the findings published in the media.

“Infant head circumference is one of the things stoking many fears. The publication caused a big stir and we felt it impossible to leave something like this open, so we met with the researchers and were shown the detailed statistics,” Prof. Eli Somekh, the association’s chairman, told Haaretz.

“We saw all the findings on infant head circumference in Haifa,” he added. “According to the research itself, we saw that infant head circumference first and foremost correlated with age at pregnancy and the number of births in a family. These two factors are unrelated to air pollution.”

Somekh added that if air pollution and location had any influence on infant head circumference, it did so at very low levels and required more clarification and separation from other factors like smoking habits. “To be safe, we recommended that the Health Ministry also conduct analyses of the data,” he said. “The findings [Portnov] presented do not surprise me.”

Portnov didn’t discuss numbers, but Grotto and Litzman revealed for the first time the statistics on infant head circumferences in the Haifa region. According to the data, the gap between the average infant head circumference of all Haifa region neighborhoods is a matter of millimeters and is similar to other places in Israel. The data presented related to the middle of last year.

“We supplied the statistics to the Health Ministry’s database regarding Haifa for the research,” said Grotto. “Last week, we made a comparison at the nationwide level and found that Haifa is no different than other parts of Israel. Now we conducted research within the Haifa district at the neighborhood level and still see no differences.”