After Uproar Over Leak, Health Study in Haifa Won’t Have Public Representative

Government officials say reports that babies born in parts of Haifa had smaller heads were incorrectly interpreted and caused unnecessary panic.

The Oil Refineries site in Haifa.
Rami Shllush

Following the recent public storm over the reported effects of air pollution on newborns in the Haifa area, Health Ministry sources said the professional committee that will oversee the large epidemiological study in the region will not have any representatives from the public.

Officials in the Health Ministry and Environmental Protection Ministry were incensed by last week’s leaks of information from the December meeting of the steering committee that had been overseeing the research. They said those reports, that babies born in certain parts of Haifa had smaller heads, were incorrectly interpreted and caused unnecessary panic. Channel 2 first reported the findings on January 31.

The officials decided that a team of experts, headed by Prof. Sigal Sedetzky, director of the Cancer and Radiology Epidemiology Unit at the Gertner Institute, will supervise the research instead of the steering committee.

The comprehensive study, which started last year and is slated to continue until 2020, was commissioned by the Haifa Region Association of Towns and some 20 researchers are involved. The steering committee had included representatives of the association and of the Health and Environment ministries, and was headed by Dr. Jonathan Dubnov, acting Haifa District physician and a lecturer at the University of Haifa’s School of Public Health.

The chairman of the Citizens for the Environment association, Liora Amitay, also attended steering committee meetings as an observer and public representative. She was present at the December 14 meeting at which the researchers presented preliminary findings to the steering committee.

After the material made headlines last week, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said, “I am in favor of this study and I think it’s both a privilege and a duty, about that there’s no argument. Still, research has to first of all go through reviews by the relevant bodies – the Environment Ministry and the Health Ministry. In this case the material was leaked. We have to check is who leaked it and what purpose the leak served.”

Several sources in the Health Ministry are convinced the leak came from Amitay. Amitay told Haaretz, “Public representatives did not leak things from the committee meeting.” She added that she planned to ask to be an observer during the discussions by the new panel as well. “It’s important for us to be there so that nobody puts pressure on the researchers,” she said.

The Health Ministry tried to calm the public by releasing data on babies’ head circumference, first comparing the Haifa district to the rest of the country and then, during a Knesset committee meeting, comparing birth weight and head circumference in different parts of the Haifa district. The researchers have yet to present their interim findings, and are expected to do so next month.