Piling Up the Corpses

Sandwiched between news reports about job layoffs and sewage flowing onto beaches was a public service announcement for workers by the National Insurance Institute. As employees, we are required to demand a clean working environment, we are told. Agrarians, carpenters and painters are some of the potential candidates to die this year from inhaling poisons and dust particles, or from those substances penetrating the skin.

There are some smart people running the NII. If we die, their income will be reduced because of our vanished salaries, while the expenses needed to care for our next of kin will inflate. If we fall ill, our hospitalization will absorb a costly chunk of state funds. And they are correct when they warn us of the daily, impalpable dangers we face in the workplace. Yet it is uncertain we will really be protected if we cover our mouths to protect our lungs while painting, or if we plow while sitting inside an air-conditioned tractor.

Indeed, we need to take the initiative. When others do it for us, the results are depressing. Put aside for a moment the security situation, which the politicians exploit to threaten us. Open your eyes and look out the window of your home to see what you are up against: electrical transformers, chimneys, dust and soot.

In June 2006, workers at the Israel Electric Corporation protested about planned reforms in the electricity market. Within days, Tel Aviv's Reading Power Station resumed operation. This was four months after environmental protection minister Gideon Ezra punished the station for dragging its feet in converting to natural gas. The punishment wilted away and the filth returned: The Yarkon River began to foam, and the environment absorbs the fumes emitted by the power station's chimneys.

The Environmental Protection Ministry's flaccid muscles were tested once again this past year. In November, fish in the Yarkon were poisoned by cleaning material that flowed into the river after a fire near the Sano factory in Hod Hasharon. The authorities piled up the corpses.

Even the air is nothing to write home about. Alongside unique natural phenomena like "the orange day" some weeks ago, when the sky was filled with haze partly from industrial and transportation-related pollutants, some of Israel's larger factories manufacture pollution regularly.

In early March, the director of the Environmental Protection Ministry's Haifa office, Robert Reuven, undertook a welcome initiative. He summoned the representatives of Oil Refineries in Haifa and Gadiv Petrochemical Industries to tell them that if their companies continued to violate pollution regulations, they would face sanctions. But the ones who have been punished are the nearby residents. Fines and public service announcements will not save them.

Government ministries make do with threats against the factories and drumming up fear among the public. The factories normally respond by plastering their poison-infested tanks with wallpaper adorned with pictures of flowers and butterflies, knowing full well that nobody will punish them severely. Shutting down Oil Refineries will paralyze the economy, shuttering the beaches or Hayarkon Park will anger the public, and locking the gates of the chemical factories will shrink the state's tax income.

It is easy to suggest that our boss abide by something the state is hesitant to demand. It is more difficult to spur the state into taking action on behalf of its poisoned citizens. But they must assist not only during office hours, when it is possible to take necessary precautions, but around the clock.