Gov’t Report Ties Air Pollution in Haifa Bay to High Cancer Risk

The study was conducted over 45 years and backs previous Health Ministry conclusions regarding the effects of local industry on public health

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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View of the Haifa Bay, last year.
View of the Haifa Bay, last year.Credit: Rami Shllush
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Research conducted with government support has linked exposure to industrial pollution in the Haifa Bay area at an early age to a higher risk of various types of cancer.

The research, initiated and supported by the environmental protection and health ministries, covers the period 1967 to 2012, before the recent reduction in pollutants in the vicinity. However, it reinforces previous Health Ministry conclusions regarding the effects of local industry on public health. Still, the research did not account for other factors that could influence the health of study subjects, like smoking.

People aged 16 to 20 who lived in Haifa in the relevant years are between 6 percent and 17 percent more likely to develop cancer, compared to the rest of the population, according to the level of exposure to pollution, the study revealed. The types of cancer with excess morbidity, and which can be linked to industrial pollution, are breast cancer in women, central nervous system cancer, head and neck cancer, leukemia, melanoma and thyroid cancer. In contrast, no relation was found between pollution and excess morbidity for lung cancer, which is one of the diseases that has been clearly linked to environmental pollution. The scientists partly explain this finding by saying lung cancer is a disease that develops at an older age.

Along with cancers, the study also found excess asthma and allergies in the Haifa Bay area – relative to those examined who do not live in the region. But as opposed to cancer, the research did not find a link between these diseases and the exposure to industrial air pollution, because no excess illness was discovered in the areas most exposed to the pollution.

The research was conducted by Prof. Raanan Raz, an epidemiologist from the School of Public Health and the Center for Sustainability at Hebrew University, together with Prof. David Broday of the Technion; Prof. Gilad Twig of the IDF’s Medical Corps and the Gertner Institute for Health Policy and Epidemiology; Prof. Lital Keinan-Boker of Haifa University and the Israel Center for Disease Control, along with other scientists.

The exposure to industrial air pollution in the Haifa Bay region was estimated using a model for exposure built for the study, based on the concentration of sulfur dioxide at monitoring stations in the years 2002 through 2004 – in areas where the presence of the sulfur dioxide could be attributed to a great extent to industrial emissions. Sulfur dioxide is the product of burning fuels, which during the period of the study were used by the Israel Electric Corporation power plant and other plants in the region.

To examine the development of cancer, the scientists used data collected by the Medical Corps, which assessed the state of health of young people from 16 to 20 born in Israel in preparation for their enlistment in the military. In total, 2,187,317 youths were examined for the study, 59 percent of whom were male. The monitoring of the young people began when they were first examined by the Medical Corps, and ended when they were diagnosed with cancer, died or became older than 20.

The years examined precede a period in which the level of pollution in the Haifa Bay region dropped significantly, which partially stemmed from the implementation of a national plan to reduce pollution from 2015 to 2020. The emissions of sulfur oxides dropped greatly because of the switch to natural gas. In addition, a number of methods to neutralize and treat the pollutants were installed in the power plants. According to data from the Environmental Protection Ministry, during the period in which the national plan was implemented, a 56 percent reduction in volatile organic polluting emissions, some of which are carcinogenic, began in the Haifa Bay area.

Still a heightened danger

According to the Environment Protection Ministry, the research reinforces the need to relocate petrochemicals from Haifa Bay and distancing them from populated areas. The cabinet agreed last March on the need to halt petrochemical activity in the bay within a decade, and to advance a plan for developing new infrastructure and new areas of employment and residences in the region. In recent months, planning agencies have been advancing a master plan of the area where the factories will relocate.

The bay contains a refinery and petrochemical complex of the Bazan Group, a power station and many factories. Compared to other industrial areas, the Haifa Bay still has high levels of flammable organic materials and heavy metals that escape into the environment. Various research worldwide has identified some of these pollutants as possible carcinogens. Benzene, which escapes as a result of fuel storage, is one such example. “The increased risk of cancer probably indicates that there is exposure to industrial air pollution in [the] Haifa Bay, which induces a number of chemical materials operating in different biological mechanisms – which increase the risk of getting ill,” the report stated.

Haifa Bay oil refineries, last March.Credit: Rami Shllush

The researchers stressed that the results are probably skewed due to a lack of important variables like smoking among the research subjects, and the inability to locate sources and concentrations of pollution at a high level of accuracy. “The current research cannot identify these materials or mechanisms because it was impossible to conduct a historic evaluation of certain pollutants,” they wrote in the report. Still, they explained that the deviations in the results cannot explain the gaps in risk of illness between Haifa Bay residents and others. Therefore, they believe the influence must come from industrial pollution.

“It provides new supporting evidence for the hypothesis that environmental exposure to industrial pollution in the Haifa Bay raised the risk of cancer,” the scientists noted. “This evidence has significant ramifications for public health.”

The Bazan Group said: “Every attempt to tie government pollution in the past to Bazan’s operations since turning it into a public corporation violates the truth. In most of the years the research covered, the government owned the refineries, with all its implications.” The company added that since going public in 2007, “the group has invested over 1.5 billion shekels [$440 million] for unprecedented improvement in the environment, reducing air pollutants by 96 percent since 2009.” The company added: “As the global reality proves, every transformation in energy needs to be done gradually and with careful planning. Bazan will constitute a bridge to the energy field’s future for transportation, and its vision is congruent with the government vision to end carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.”

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