Babies Born in Haifa's Most Polluted Areas Have Smaller Heads, Study Claims

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The ammonia tank in Haifa. Credit: Hagay Frid

Babies in Haifa’s most polluted areas are being born with substantially lower weights and smaller heads than in cleaner parts of the northern city, a new study has found.

The study also concluded that adults in these areas suffer a higher incidence of cancer. The study, which is not completely finished, was conducted by researchers at the University of Haifa and was first reported by Channel 2 television last night.

The main problem areas, the study said, are 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 in these areas have birth weights and head sizes 20 to 30 percent lower than those born to residents of cleaner parts of Haifa, the study said.

In addition, the incidence of lung cancer and lymphoma among adult residents in these areas is up to five times the national average.

According to Channel 2, the study is based on data from 2012 onward.

Based on an examination of the direction of the area’s prevailing 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 commenced last year, after a media storm in April over allegations that children in the Haifa area had higher rates of cancer than the national average. These allegations were later found to be factually incorrect, but prompted the health and environmental protection ministries to sponsor a comprehensive study on the impact of pollution in the Haifa region.

The study, led by Prof. Boris Portnov and Dr. Jonathan Dubnov, is apparently still unfinished and its findings are slated to be published only in March. But even if the data isn’t yet final, its conclusions are still extremely troubling.

Dr. Hagai Levine, of Hebrew University’s Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said the data shows that air pollution hasn’t declined in recent years, contrary to Environmental Protection Ministry claims.

“There is growing evidence of a connection between air pollution and damage to the development of the fetus, which is expressed, among other things, in low birth rates, head size and other parameters,” he said.

“Low weight at birth is a risk factor for mortality after birth and can lead to other complications,” he added. “At later ages, this is likely to lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory issues (including asthma) and cognitive problems like a lowering of the IQ.”

The findings from Haifa are worrisome, but it must be stressed that they have not been presented to the broader scientific community and need to be critically reviewed.

Throughout the world, there have been studies that found no link between air pollution and changes in birth weights – in Brazil, for example. Conversely, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the United States recently published a study conducted in Britain in which a link was found, although in that instance the air pollution was not from industrial sources.

The new data isn’t a complete surprise in light of previous studies of incidence of disease in the Haifa area. 

Incidence of cancer in Haifa rose steadily in the decade from 2001 to 2011 – to 15 percent above the national average. Most notably, incidence of lung cancer is 26 percent above the national average for women and 16 percent for men, while incidence of colon cancer is 21 percent above the national average for women and 15 percent for men. Incidence of breast cancer is 6 percent higher, while that of prostate cancer is 8 percent higher. 

In contrast, cancer rates for children aren’t higher in Haifa than elsewhere in the country, and in some cases are actually lower. But children in Haifa do have unusually high rates of hospitalization for asthma and other lung diseases that carry a risk of bronchitis.

One study of children in Haifa aged 6 to 14, for instance, found that incidence of asthma was 2.5 times higher in Haifa than in less polluted areas, even when air pollution in Haifa didn’t exceed the permitted standard.

The new study is based on data from the health maintenance organizations, hospitals, cancer databases and the army.

Haifa’s main hospital, Rambam Medical Center, said its maternity and preemie wards are not familiar with the study’s findings. “Perhaps this data was gathered from other sources,” it said. “Therefore, Rambam physicians won’t respond to the research before they have the actual data (and not the television slide) in their hands.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry said its working assumption is that air pollution in the Haifa Bay area is very high. Therefore, it has prepared a plan to lower air pollution and is implementing it energetically. 

The region’s air pollution level has fallen by 11 percent, but is still too high, and further reductions are needed, it added. It said the University of Haifa study will serve as the basis for the second stage of the plan.

The University of Haifa study is supposed to last five years and is now nearing the end of the first year. Interim conclusions from this period will be submitted to the relevant authorities in another two weeks.

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