Israel Drops Controversial Study on Links Between Pollution and Cancer in Haifa Area

The health and environment ministries cite methodical problems in the research that found babies being born with smaller heads

Factories in Haifa Bay. 2015. Some 400 large-scale plants have a significant effect on the environment.
Rami Shllush

The government announced Sunday that it will halt research linking Haifa Bay deaths and industrial pollution, saying the efforts had not supplied the appropriate tools to assess the problem.

Last year the researchers said babies in Haifa’s most polluted areas were being born with substantially lower weights and smaller heads than in cleaner parts of the city. The incidence of lung cancer and lymphoma among adults in these areas was up to five times the national average, it added.

On Sunday, the Environmental Protection Ministry announced that its chief, Zeev Elkin, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman had accepted the recommendations of the scientific committee supervising the research.

The panel recommended halting the parts of the study examining the risk of cancer and asthma in children including teenagers. Only the part of the research linked to the biological monitoring of subjects would continue to be funded by the government.

The committee said the researchers used methods with significant disadvantages in examining cancer morbidity and pollution’s effects on child growth.

Last year the scientists leading the study, Prof. Boris Portnov and Dr. Jonathan Dubnov of the University of Haifa, presented the preliminary results of their first year of research. But the committee felt there were problems with the research methods, including the use of air-pollution data from monitoring stations on four types of pollutants to estimate exposure to pollutants.

The scientific oversight committee replaced a previous steering committee for the research, which also included representatives of the public.

The oversight committee believed that exposure to pollutants should be measured by biological monitoring of residents in the region, including saliva testing. It recommended that police officers and doctors be used as subjects for the new study.

The study’s preliminary findings were reported in February 2016.

According to the research, the main problem areas were the towns Kiryat Haim and Kiryat Bialik, the southeastern part of Kiryat Tivon, and the side of Mount Carmel facing Haifa’s industrial area. Babies born to residents of these areas had birth weights and head sizes 20 percent to 30 percent lower than those born to residents of cleaner parts of Haifa.

The study is based on data from 2012 onward.

Based on an examination of the area’s winds, the researchers concluded that volatile organic compounds emitted by Haifa’s factories are responsible for – or at least contribute to – the higher incidence of illness.

The study began in 2015 after a media storm in April that year over allegations that children in the Haifa area had higher rates of cancer than the national average. These allegations were later found to be incorrect but prompted the health and environmental protection ministries to sponsor the study on the impact of pollution in the Haifa region.

The Environmental Protection Ministry plans to invite proposals for new research to examine the risk of developing cancer or asthma.

Prof. Micha Barchana, an expert in cancer and its epidemiology at the University of Haifa, told Haaretz that Sunday’s news was only a technical matter. According to Barchana, the government’s statement says the financing for the research was halted only because the scientists did not add more researchers in specific areas, a secondary consideration.

Haifa City Hall said it demanded that the government find a way, including proper methodology, to examine once and for all the correlation between pollution and its effects. Until then, all plans that have environmental implications should be halted, it said.