Environment,  Israel,  Opinion,  Public Health,  Times of Israel

One month after the oil spill, Israelis remain uninformed about health risks

[Repost from the Times of Israel]

Today, March 17th 2021, marks exactly one month after a large oil spill reached the shores of Israel. Over a few days, about 170km of Israel’s Mediterranean coastal line slowly blackened up with thick tar. During the first weekend after the disaster, as well as the following weeks, many Israelis showed their most involved and caring side, when they decided to spend precious free hours digging through the beach sand, filling up garbage bag after garbage bag with the black tar. This all while being highly encouraged by local municipalities, by the Nature Park authorities, as well as by family, friends, and community members.

However, the involvement of so many volunteers, most without any proper instructions or safety measures, has been debated. Mainly due to concerns about the influence of exposure to carcinogenic and toxic substances in crude oil, on both individual health and public health. On February 24th, I, therefore, published an opinion piece with the Jerusalem Post, in which I highlighted the need for transparency of the research data about the origin of the oil as well as the health risks involved. So that the public at least agrees to volunteer with the full information about the health risks involved being available. [Link to the JPost Opinion piece]

Other scientists have also addressed the danger of exposure to the oil, such as which encountered by the volunteers on their cleaning missions. For example, Prof. Mindy Levine — currently associated with the Department of Chemical Science at Ariel University — went even bolder to say that volunteers should absolutely stay away from the beaches. According to her expertise in the field of organic chemistry, exposure to black tar — even with basic body and face protection – may damage the lungs, therefore affecting the ability to breathe. [Link to the i42NEWS interview]

Unfortunately, there remain many uncertainties about the exact cause and extent of the oil spill. In the last weeks, different stories have been shared: an act of Iranian eco-terrorism, a Syria-involved accident, potentially the result of sabotage by Israel itself? The exact answer remains, I believe, still unknown.

But maybe the main question also shouldn’t be so much what happened, but more so what progress has been made in the last month? Earlier today, in a statement by the Environmental Protection Ministry, it was shared that in total 650 tons of tar have been removed, estimated to be about 83% of the total pollution. Still, 36% of the beaches are graded as having low-level to mid-level pollution; and 3% of beaches are marked as having significant pollution. [source]. So, based on these numbers much progress has already been made in the clean-up mission. But how? And with what information to the public?

An example. In our local municipality — Hof HaCarmel — the authorities have been advertising for volunteers on Facebook for weeks. Looking back through the different ads, none of them informed them about the potential health risks involved. Not having seen any of the oil ourselves, and considering we only live about a five-minute walk from the beach, my husband and I decided to check out how the current situation was. Hoping to see some major progress with the clean-up being made, the reality shocked us both.

As we walked towards the beach, there were no signs or posts or people to warn about the oil. On the beach, families were picnicking in the sand, dogs happily running around, children building sandcastles, and about 30 or so surfers were waiting for their turn to ride the waves back to the shore. From a distance, it looked like a beautiful early spring day on the Meditteranean coast like any: people just enjoying their freedom in the sunshine, after the long lockdowns and an Israeli ‘winter’.

However, as we got closer to the waves, they appeared much more murky than usual. Instead of the normal turquoise-blue, the water had a dirty brown color. In the waves, we could see smaller and larger plaques of consolidated black tar. The beach itself unfortunately wasn’t much better: spread out over the sand, even as far as 10 meters from the waterline, tiny black spots made a trail about as far as the eye could see. Here and there, a large consolidated piece of tar lay glistering in the sun. Breathing in the sea breeze, there appeared to be a vague smell as if there was a gas station nearby. But that isn’t the case and the smell clearly came from the beach and the crashing waves.

Needless to say, we immediately returned. In shock by the state of the beach, confused by the people enjoying it as if there weren’t remains of an actual environmental disaster everywhere. And angry: why isn’t there more awareness about the health risks? Why are the municipalities actively recruiting volunteers, without any information on what harm this oil exposure may bring to their health?
Unfortunately, I believe that major mistakes have been made and are still being made. Local municipalities continue to heavily rely on volunteers, actively recruiting for more clean-up work. While the public seems to still be largely unaware of the potential health consequences of exposure to the tar. As more oil keeps reaching the shores, it is still such a necessary and relevant issue. There needs to be actual professional guidance of the clean-up, transparency in information, and above all awareness about the real risks of exposure to the tar. Especially now the state of emergency on the beaches has – as of today – been lifted [source].