Israeli Health Ministry Disputes Claim That Haifa Pollution Damaging Infants

In fiery city council session, experts dispute findings of University of Haifa preliminary research into effects of pollution.

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To what extent air pollution in the Haifa area affects newborns remains an open question.Credit: Baz Ratner

The Haifa municipal council held a fiery meeting Tuesday in the wake of an interim report by University of Haifa researchers regarding the impact of pollution on infant sizes.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav attended the meeting. A handful of residents demonstrated outside City Hall, carrying signs that read “Why are you hiding the researchers’ results?”

The council met in response to the preliminary report, according to which babies from three areas of Haifa are born underweight and with head circumferences 20-30 percent smaller relative to other neighborhoods.

The lead researcher, Prof. Boris Portnov, told the meeting that it cannot be stated based on the findings that babies in Haifa are born with a smaller head circumference relative to infants born elsewhere in Israel, “but we do know according to measurements that there are ‘hot spots’ of children born underweight in certain areas.”

The director of public health services at the Health Ministry, Itamar Grotto, said, “Cancer research only covers 2012, so it’s hard to draw conclusions from one year.”

Regarding head circumferences, he stressed, “There is no national comparison, and the quote was taken out of context.”

Grotto said the average head circumference of babies in the Haifa region is 34.7 cm, identical to the national average. “Still,” he noted, “there are places in Haifa with a small head circumference or many premature infants. It’s a worrisome finding, but there is still no definitive connection to air pollution.”

Portnov explained that the researchers are trying to locate “hot spots” of sickness in different population groups, and examining whether they are connected to long-term air pollution. “I refuse out of hand to release the information,” he stressed. “We are in the first stages of preliminary findings.”

Still, he remarked, “Air pollution in Haifa is fairly stable. It has not changed in recent years and is less severe than in other metropolitan areas in Israel. We checked two types of cancer known to be related to environmental pollution, lung cancer and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. There is a higher rate in Haifa, but similar to other metropolitan areas in Hadera and Tel Aviv.”

Regarding infant development, Portnov stressed, “In the model of infant development and head circumference, it is important to remark that we have yet to receive data about other places in Israel. We cannot say if there is a difference between Haifa and other cities either in terms of head circumference or birth weight.

“Within a number of weeks we will submit our report to a professional committee. It is not up to us whether they will decide to publish the report or not.”

The director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, Yisrael Danziger, said there is air pollution in other metropolitan areas, and that it is the first time in Israel’s history that funds were allocated to deal with this problem. According to him, the Haifa metropolitan area has reduced pollution by 11 percent.

Mayor Yahav said that he would personally make sure the research is fully transparent.

“If it turns out that the data show a problem, then we will work jointly to take necessary steps,” Health Minister Litzman said at the meeting. “I respect the report, but we won’t draw any conclusions until it undergoes a professional examination by government ministries.”

Environmental Protection Minister Gabbay said: “To the degree we find the conclusions correct, it will oblige us to take completely different steps. We will patiently wait for the research to be completed. Then we will decide.”

Several professional bodies attacked the research and its findings earlier this week, as well as the way it was portrayed in the media. One member of the study’s steering committee said that reports of a 20-30 percent difference in head circumference were baseless and did not appear in the preliminary findings.

The University of Haifa commented: “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 Environmental Protection Ministry.”

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