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Israel's Urban Environment, 1948–1988
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The EPS staff members did their best wherever they could. They managed to draft and pass regulations, most notably in the area of noise pollution control.[183] They helped lobby several important environmental laws in areas such as marine pollution control, as well as an amendment that has successfully kept commercial billboards off of Israel's highways.[184] They worked with the local environmental units (which eventually reached twenty in number) and promoted educational activities. In 1988 they man-aged to get a Yarkon Springs Authority established,[185] the first use of a 1965 law designed to encourage watershed management of rivers.[186] They gave a great deal of advice. They pointed a lot of fingers.

Sadly, the record mostly reflects what they were unable to do.[187] Almost all environmental trends remained negative. Groundwater qual-ity continued to deteriorate dramatically, and three successive Water Commissioners did not seem to care very much. Outside of the Greater Dan region, sewage treatment was not effective, and yet the Ministry of the Interior did little to pressure mayors to invest in appropriate infra-structure. With the exception of lead and sulfur dioxide, air pollution emissions increased exponentially. (Permissible lead concentrations in gasoline were reduced to fifteen grams per liter in 1989, producing an immediate decrease, and the personal decrees managed to keep sulfur dioxide levels steady.) Composting as a profitable waste reduction alter-native came to a halt, as did the widespread reuse of beverage containers. With little data available, regulators themselves had trouble following the pace of deterioration.

Israel's misuse of pesticides offered a particularly compelling case of government impotence and the need for fundamental regulatory reform. Pesticide usage was governed under a 1956 statute aptly entitled the Plant Protection Law. It certainly was not designed as an environmental protec-tion law. Registration, production, and sales of pesticides remained safely under the patronage of the Minster of Agriculture.[188] The perils of insec-ticides and herbicides were not unknown to Israel's farming establishment.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had been translated into Hebrew in 1966.[189] But as cotton became a centerpiece in the economic profile of many kib-butzim, the need for chemical protection for this crop drove public policy. By 1976 a staggering 21,000 tons of pesticides were applied to Israeli farm-land,[190] 40 percent of which went to Israel's cotton crop.[191]

The Minister of Agriculture went so far as to set up an intermin-isterial committee to review applications to market new pesticides. Although the committee had no formal legal authority, its ostensible mis-sion was to provide protection against ecologically dangerous chemicals. In fact, review of the committee's protocols during the 1980s reveals that the committee was a rubber stamp for the chemical industry. The Ministry of Health representatives frequently voiced their objections to the registration of high-risk pesticides. But these protestations were routinely ignored by the majority of the committee members, who were appointed by the Minister of Agriculture. They justified their approval on the grounds that the pesticides would help crop yields.[192] By the 1980s, over six hundred different brands of pesticides were on the market in Israel.[193]

The disastrous impact of the chemical proliferation on Israeli wildlife was well known.[194] Ironically, for many years, much less effort went into researching the health impacts of pesticides on humans. For twenty-five years, from the early 1950s until the mid-1970s, there was massive use of chlorinated organic pesticides such as DDT, lindane, and benzene hexa-chloride (BHC).[195] When the breast milk of Israeli women was finally monitored in the 1970s, scientists were astonished to find BHC concentra-tions that reached 2500 parts per billion—or eight hundred times the 3-ppb level found in a comparable sample of American women. These chemicals were phased out soon thereafter, but it was too late for many women (breast and other hormonally related cancers were unusually high in Israel during the period).[196] Pesticide production was also hazardous. For a brief period, DBCP, a particularly notorious insecticide, was produced by the Dead Sea Bromine Group. Five workers became sterile as a result.[197]

The chlorinated chemicals were replaced by a different family of pesticides—organophosphates. Organophosphates such as parathion or paraquat are not as persistent and do not accumulate in the food chain, but they have a much higher acute toxicity and pose greater direct dan-gers to human beings. Generally these poisons work by inhibiting the cholinesterase in the nerve junctions. Acute symptoms involving the central nervous system include nausea, diarrhea, heartbeat irregulari-ties, and, in extreme cases, convulsions and, in women, spontaneous abortions. During the 1980s, emergency rooms in Israel were treating

two hundred cases of acute pesticide poisoning each year, primarily among farm workers.[198]

The chronic, long-term health effects observed, however, should have warranted even greater concern. Hadassah Hospital occupational physician Elihu Richter, in a series of studies, showed elevated exposure levels (measured by blood test) among rural kibbutz and moshav populations, apparently brought about by absorption through the skin.[199] Aerial spray-ing was the most common route of exposure, in particular for farmers who worked near the six hundred thousand dunams of cotton cultivated during this period.“Drift” (toxic mists) became a serious problem, and many agri-cultural communities experienced high miscarriage rates.[200] Regulations promulgated by the Ministry of Health in 1979 set a fairly lenient, 120-meter spraying limit from residential homes. It survives to this day.[201](Years later, a three-hundred-meter limit was imposed on aerial spraying near sensitive water bodies.[202] The human environment ostensibly remains less protected than the natural one.) In one Israeli study, it was found that farmers within a two-kilometer distance of aerial sprayers had high visitation rates at kibbutz infirmaries.

In a devastating 1986 report, the Israel State Comptroller uncovered bureaucratic mismanagement and particularly lax oversight in the field. The Ministry of Health had never gotten around to adopting food residue limitations for 57 percent of the two hundred common pesticides in use in Israel. However, it may not have mattered very much, because the Ministry only checked sixty-three fresh fruits and vegetables during the entire year of 1985. The 10 percent of samples that exceeded permissible levels were statistically insignificant. For all intents and purposes, the Israeli food supply was unmonitored. The Comptroller also reported that of the 190 stores that were authorized to sell pesticides, only five were checked to see what chemicals they were actually selling.

There was no oversight of the permits required by law for applying par-ticularly dangerous pesticides such as aldicarb (Temick) and parathion. Most alarming, neither the Ministry of Agriculture, nor of Labor, nor of Health had any personnel whose job it was to monitor the use of pesticides in the field. With anarchy prevailing, it was hard to blame farmers and their suppliers for taking the path of least resistance.

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