The study compared levels of metals and other pollutants in new mothers living in Haifa and their infants and those in the center of the country shows differences.


Published: JUNE 30, 2022

 An aerial view of Haifa, northern Israel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
An aerial view of Haifa, northern Israel

Although heavy industries in the Haifa Bay area have in recent years been forced to clean up or close down and move elsewhere, the air is still known to be polluted. In fact, the amount of pollution released in Haifa Bay is still among the highest in Israel.

A new study by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, conducted by Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, Shamir (Assaf Harofeh) Medical Center in Tzrifin (near Rishon Lezion) and Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev compared environmental pollutants in the urine of women after delivery and risks to their newborn babies in Haifa compared to those born in the center of the country.

Until now, no comprehensive study was been conducted in Haifa that examined the relationship between exposure to environmental pollutants during pregnancy and unwanted outcomes in mothers’ newborns.

The researchers compared the exact place of the mothers’ residence in Haifa – nearer or closer to Haifa Bay and the levels of metals and other pollutants in their urine.

They found that there was a direct connection between living in the bay area in the lower part of the city and levels of most toxins. 

Environmental toxins

In recent years, much evidence has been published suggesting that environmental toxins and pollutants pose health risks to pregnant women and their fetuses.

These studies found associations between the level of exposure to contaminants and intrauterine changes in the women who were exposed to the contaminants – but information on the level of exposure was limited and sometimes controversial.

The aim of the study was to examine whether pregnant women are exposed to heavy metals and volatile organic pollutants and the link between maternal exposure and pregnancy outcomes.

Urine samples of 826 new mothers and their newborns were tested for the pollutants – half of them living in Haifa and the other half living in the center of the country between 2016 and 2019. All of the babies were born after the 37th week of gestation.

Although the placenta can function as a selective preventative barrier to the passage of toxins into the developing fetus, some of the contaminants can cross it even at low concentrations and penetrate easily to the fetal blood system.

Haifa mothers most affected

The study found that levels of some of the metals and some of the BTEX components (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) were significantly higher in the samples of mothers from Haifa Bay compared to mothers from the center of the country.

Fortunately, however, the levels measured in the urine of women living in the Haifa area were found to be significantly lower than the levels reported in the most-polluted areas of the world and lower than the levels defined as harmful by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Chromium, nickel, arsenic, mercury, selenium and thallium were found in the samples of over 86% of the mothers, while lead and cadmium were found in the urine of fewer than 70% of mothers. The selenium levels were higher than the world standard.

Entitled “Maternal-infant biomonitoring of heavy metals and organic pollutants in Haifa Bay,” the unpublished governmental study was carried out by Prof. Ido Solt of Rambam Medical Center, Prof. Amalia Levy of BGU and Prof. Matti Berkovitch of Shamir Medical Center, together with doctoral student Tal Michael and other researchers.

It was commissioned by the ministry’s Chief Scientist and the Health Ministry as part of research in the field of health and the environment in Haifa Bay.

Although most biological mechanisms involving pollution are not clear, some of the final expressions of these mechanisms can be tested relatively easily, they said.

Some of the sensitive effects that can be determined in newborns including APGAR scores – which denote the condition of the newborn infant immediately after birth and are used as a tool for standardized assessment – can be tested in the delivery room and are recognized as possible signs of disorders of the endocrine system.

The head circumference, weight at birth and the distance between the newborn’s anus and genital organs (anogenital distance) were also tested. 

The average weight of the baby boys born to mothers in Haifa was significantly higher, at 3.458 grams, than those born to families living in the center of the country (3.329 grams).

No significant differences were found in the head circumferences of the Haifa newborns compared to those born in the center of the country, but the anogenital distance in boys born in Haifa was significantly longer and significantly shorter in girls born in Haifa than their counterparts born in the center of Israel.