State Panel Calls to End Funding for Controversial Haifa Bay Pollution Study

Preliminary draft aroused controversy in January when it claimed that babies in polluted parts of Haifa were born with smaller heads.

Baz Ratner

A scientific committee appointed by the health and environmental protection ministries yesterday slammed a controversial study on air pollution in Haifa Bay and recommended that its funding be cut.

The scientific panel was referring to a study that caused concern in January when it released a preliminary draft saying infants in Haifa’s most polluted areas are born weighing substantially less and with smaller heads than in cleaner parts of the city.

The committee said the study consisted of several failures and “cannot constitute a basis for evaluating morbidity and the connection between air pollution and the morbidity situation in Haifa Bay.”

The study, led by Prof. Boris Portnov of the University of Haifa and Dr. Jonathan Dubnov – acting Haifa district physician and a lecturer at the University of Haifa’s School of Public Health – began last year and is due to continue for five years.

The scientific committee’s 80-page report says the most fundamental problem that affects all aspects of the study is a faulty evaluation of the area’s residents’ exposure to air pollution.

The panel maintains that the evaluation was carried out in a method that is not suitable to Haifa Bay, and that the study didn’t deal in-depth with the pollution sources. The committee believes that these flaws could lead to an erroneous assessment of the exposure to pollution and a mistaken interpretation of the results.

The scientific panel is headed by Prof. Sigal Sedetzky, director of the Cancer and Radiology Epidemiology Unit at the Gertner Institute. “The study consists of dramatic errors stemming, among other things, from a shortage of experts on the research team,” Sedetzky told Haaretz. “An environmental study of this kind is multidisciplinary and requires a wide range of experts. For example, in results regarding head circumference averages, there isn’t even a basic standardization for each pregnancy week compared to the norm.”

The study focused on a number of issues, including the probability of contracting lung cancer and (non-Hodgkin’s) lymphoma, babies’ health, asthma among children and Israel Defense Forces recruits, biological monitoring of air-pollution effect and air quality. Twenty scientists from the Technion, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion universities took part.

The preliminary draft released on Channel 2 said three heavily polluted areas were found in Haifa Bay, where a higher morbidity level than average was measured. The scientists’ main finding was that babies in these areas weighed less and had smaller heads than average.

The scientific committee’s report says the “study is riddled with fundamental methodological problems, which raise doubt as to the reliability and validity of the data and methods the scientists used, and hence regarding the validity and significance of the results.”

The study team said in response that the complete report was written by the best scientists in Israel. “The report itself consists of various studies carried out by scientists from various universities, based on external data banks from a number of sources,” the study team said. “Although different scientists worked on the study and used various studies and data banks – all the results are consistent and there is a high correlation among the various studies regarding the morbidity ‘hot spots’ that were found.”

They also said the study was recently released in “Environmental Research,” a scientific journal that publishes only a few dozen carefully selected studies a year. This proves the report is among the leading studies of its kind and that the scientists’ methodology is legitimate and acceptable, they added.