Environment and Health Fund and the Health Ministry say delay caused by political crisis and ongoing parliamentary paralysis

Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters march through Tel Aviv, September 27, 2019.
Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters march through Tel Aviv, September 27, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Zafrir Rinat Published on 04.01.2021

The government has not budgeted or set goals for its climate crisis preparation program, says a report published Monday by the Health Ministry and the Environment and Health Fund.

The report warns that the delay in implementing the program could have a damaging impact on public health in the event of extreme weather, or the spread of diseases as a result of global warming. It attributes the delay to the political crisis and parliamentary paralysis, which are also affecting other public health efforts.

Two years ago, the government approved a climate crisis preparation plan that touches on numerous areas. Its proposals include improved monitoring of viruses and harmful species that could spread due to the climate crisis, implementing a program to store floodwaters, expanding urban forestry efforts in order to allay the effects of extended heat waves and investing in upgrading buildings in accordance with green standards for better insulation.

The government also decided to form an inter-ministerial administration to coordinate all of the elements of the program. A committee formed as part of this administrative body conducted a world survey and found that the biggest threats to human health in connection with the climate crisis are sickness due to excessive heat, exacerbation of chronic illnesses, adverse impact on nutritional security and the spread of infectious diseases. The Environmental Protection Ministry is in the final stages of publication for the administration’s recommendations for action and their prioritization. But without a budget, it will be impossible to make the leap from recommendations to execution.

Another health risk cited in the report is exposure to pesticides and recommends that eight of them be taken out of use due to risks such as harm to developing fetuses, heightened risk of cancer and risk of chronic poisoning. The committee did decide to permit the use of Glyfos weed-killer, including in non-agricultural areas, despite some controversy over its safety. In Europe, its use is currently restricted. The report also says that despite earlier recommendations, there is still no national database concerning instances of poisoning from pesticides, and no legislation has been advanced regarding restrictions on pesticides that are known to be highly toxic.

Firefighters at the scene of a blaze in northern Israel, October 10, 2020.
Firefighters at the scene of a blaze in northern Israel, October 10, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

Prof. Itamar Grotto, deputy director of the Health Ministry, writes in the introduction to the report: “One result of the parliamentary paralysis and the coronavirus crisis is the postponement of reforms concerning health and environmental policy.”

He also comments on the Economy Ministry’s effort to reduce the examinations to which imported products are subjected. “If this reform does not come with oversight and extensive government enforcement, it could lead to Israelis having increased exposure to dangerous chemicals in imported consumer products.”

The report also cites areas in which Israel has made significant progress, such as water desalination and the use of treated wastewater for irrigation. But there is no mention of their adverse health consequences. “The desalinated water that is supplied today does not contain vital minerals and to date there has been no progress in finding a solution to this deficiency,” says Dr. Ruth Ostrin, director of the Environment and Health Fund, referring to minerals like magnesium and iodine.

The treated wastewater used for irrigation still contains pollutants that were not broken down during the treatment process and could potentially reach food that people consume or drinking water. No risk assessment of chemical pollutants in treated wastewater has ever been done. Ostrin says greater support is needed for extensive biological monitoring in order to discover the levels of pollutants to which Israelis are being exposed. “Without this information, we can’t know what people are being exposed to. It’s impossible to set policy to protect public health if we have no data.”