The Health Ministry on Wednesday released the figures showing that the heads of newborns from the Haifa region are not smaller than the national average.
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The move was part of the agency’s response to a recent study by researchers from the University of Haifa, claiming that smaller head circumferences and lower birth weights were recorded for babies in the most heavily polluted areas of the city and surrounding communities, compared to other parts of Haifa.
The study, which was first reported by Israel Channel 2 television on Sunday, set off a flurry of claims and counterclaims in the local media.
According to the figures released by the ministry, the average head circumference for newborns in Israel is between 34.4 centimeters and 34.9 centimeters for males and from 33.97 centimeters to 34.04 centimeters for females. In Haifa the average is 34.7 centimeters for males and 34.04 centimeters for females.
Speaking Wednesday on an Israel Radio morning news program, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said a review by his ministry of data from well-baby clinics found that the average size of babies’ heads in the Haifa district was identical to the rest of the country. He added, however, that he would have professionals in the ministry review the matter thoroughly with Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay.
Gabbay said on the same program that he would see to it that the polluting factories in the Haifa area were shut down if all the pollution-reducing measures prescribed were found to be insufficient. “If I were a Haifa resident, I wouldn’t believe the denials about the pollution either,” Gabbay said.
According to the University of Haifa study, babies from three areas - Kiryat Haim and Kiryat Bialik, the southeastern part of Kiryat Tivon and the slopes of Mount Carmel facing Haifa’s industrial area - had birth weights and head sizes that are 20 percent to 30 percent lower than those born to residents of cleaner parts of Haifa.
The report did not specify how many babies were born underweight and with smaller heads, or their percentage in the total number of births in the region during the period. It also did not say whether the findings suggested that pollution was a cause or whether the measurements could be within the norm.
The director of public health services at the Health Ministry, Itamar Grotto, said the average head circumference of babies in the Haifa region is 34.7 centimeters, identical to the national average.
Speaking at a stormy meeting of the Haifa municipal council on Tuesday to discuss the report, Grotto said, “there’s no national comparison [of babies’ head circumference], and the quote was taken out of context.” “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.”
“Cancer research only covers 2012, so it’s hard to draw conclusions from one year,” he added.
Grotto said that following the study, the ministry started checking babies’ head circumference registered at well-baby clinics nationwide in the past six months. “The figures show there’s no difference in the various areas in Israel,” he said.
Health Ministry officials said Wednesday that the report is preliminary and deals with averages only and that
the ministry will continue processing them. “As in every scientific study, the information and conclusions in the report must be validated and verified,” an official said.