Substances used in flame retardant have been found in relatively high concentrations in areas of past major fires, but not at dangerous levels in drinking waterSend in e-mailSend in e-mail

A firefighter in action in southern Israel, August 11, 2020.
A firefighter in action in southern Israel, August 11, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Zafrir Rinat Published on 19.11.2020

High concentrations of a new kind of pollutant have been found in Israel’s groundwater, a survey conducted at the beginning of the year by Israel’s Water Authority and the Health Ministry has revealed.

The substances are generally found in flame retardant foam used by firefighters. The survey, which was conducted for the first time to determine how prevalent their presence is, has detected them in groundwater near the sites of past major fires.

The survey was designed to detect two pollutants from a group of substances known as PFAS. They were not found at dangerous levels in drinking water, but there is concern that their presence could increase in the future.

Among the kinds of harm that exposure to PFAs can cause is damage to fetal development and to the immune system, and an increased risk of cancer. The substances are used in a variety of products, including the flame retardants. Following a fire, they seep into the ground and make their way into groundwater.

Testing was also carried out at several drinking water drilling sites, at garbage dumps, military bases and at a facility used by the National Fire and Rescue Authority. Water samples were sent for testing to laboratories in Israel and the United States. The results were evaluated based on standards established for the first time in Canada for these pollutants.

The survey found the highest concentration of flame retardant in the vicinity of refineries in Haifa and Ashdod. At one site, concentr    ations of 600,000 nanograms per liter were found – 100 times the permitted Canadian standard. Large quantities of the foam are stored at both locations and have been widely used there over the past four years to extinguish fires.

Drinking water samples were taken near two firefighter training sites in Rishon Letzion and Caesarea. The highest levels of flame retardant were found in groundwater used for drinking near Caesarea, after which monitoring of the situation was initiated. The concentrations remained lower than the maximum permitted, but suggested a risk that the situation could worsen and pollute drinking water.

Since the survey was carried out, flame retardant was found at several other sites, but at low concentrations. The survey was conducted to enable the Health Ministry to develop recommendations on an Israeli standard for the substances.

The process is expected to take two years, after which it will be decided whether Israel should have its own standard or if some other means should be used to monitor the situation. If a standard is set, the government would have the authority to require polluters to take preventative action or carry out cleanup operations.

A refinery fire in Haifa in 2016.
A refinery fire in Haifa in 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush

Dr. Benny Hefetz, the dean of the Robert Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Haaretz that these pollutants have been receiving wide attention in the United States and Europe. “They are very problematic due to their great stability in the environment.” Higher priority, he said, should be given to finding technology to treat polluted water than testing what is in the water.

The team that conducted the study has recommended additional steps, including consideration of a ban on flame retardant foam containing the pollutants and expanded testing of sources of drinking water to ensure that it hasn’t spread to them. They also recommended steps to ensure that foam that is past its expiration date be properly disposed of, because it too can be a source of pollution.