"The factories in the Haifa Bay never really bothered me and were simply part of the city's landscape," said Yuval Ben-Tyar, 36, when we met him in the Oncology Ward at Ruth Rappaport Children's Hospital (Rambam Health Care Campus) with his seven-year-old daughter, Amit, who is suffering from leukemia. "But everything changed when my daughter got sick. I started asking questions: Why did this happen to her? Why should she and her whole family have to suffer like this?
"The news of her illness was a big shock for us and changed all of our lives," Amit's father continued. "Amit has been receiving chemotherapy treatment at the hospital for months now. The treatments have affected her, her body, and it's been very painful for us to see our daughter suffering. Ever since she fell ill, my mind has been filled with thoughts about the causes. Is it because of the refineries or one of the other chemical plants? We knew we lived in a high-risk area, but I never once thought that someone in my family would get cancer. I was very angry after reading the new report, and I realized that we are simply a part of the statistics."
The alarming figures appear in a report submitted by Professor Itamar Grotto, director of Public Health Services at the Health Ministry, to the Appeals Committee of the National Planning and Building Council. According to Prof. Grotto, the chances of contracting lung cancer in Haifa are 29 percent higher than elsewhere in the country, with the risk of contracting bladder cancer in the city 26 percent higher than anywhere else in Israel.
The report also shows that the number of children in Haifa up to the age of 14 who have contracted cancer is double the national average; the rate among children of other ages is also higher than elsewhere in the country.
"There's been no cancer in my family, and not in my husband's either, so it's not genetic," said Kiryat Motzkin resident Galina Toporovsky, whose 11-year-old daughter, Leone, was diagnosed with severe leukemia some two years ago. "I've heard that air pollution causes more cancer. It affects the weaker and poorer people more as they can't change their lives and leave the area. I have a friend who's been working as an oncology nurse at Rambam Hospital for 15 years, and she says there was hardly any work up until 10 years ago, but that there have been lots of patients in recent years."
In a statement in response to the report, the Green Course environmental organization said: "We're dealing with an ongoing oversight on the part of the Health Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Haifa Municipality, which fail to cede to our demands to remove the hazardous materials and prevent the refineries from expanding their operations, thereby putting the lives of more than 800,000 residents at risk. Studies are an important tool; but in this instance, it’s time for action."
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav also responded harshly to the Health Ministry report. "The government ministries, whose job it is to protect the people of the north, have undermined and thwarted every effort on the part of the authorities in the region to put an end to the dangers. You must remember that the tools are in the hands of the government and not the municipalities. The Environmental Protection Ministry refuses to share the list of plants responsible for the contamination with us, and it won't reveal the contamination levels at each specific plant."