Revealed: Health officials call for evacuation of Border Police base over dangerously high air pollution

Air pollution near the Atarot base, north of Jerusalem, exceeds the Israeli limit – which is considered extremely lax – by 288 percent. Sometimes, it reaches 1,000 percent over the limit. The Israel Police’s Occupational Health and Safety Unit want the base evacuated, but, in the meantime, the police will make do with constant monitoring. The police response: “We’ve set up a committee.”

Air pollution near the Atarot base, north of Jerusalem, exceeds the Israeli limit – which is considered extremely lax – by 288 percent. Sometimes, it reaches 1,000 percent over the limit. The Israel Police’s Occupational Health and Safety Unit want the base evacuated, but, in the meantime, the police will make do with constant monitoring. The police response: “We’ve set up a committee.”

Air pollution near the Atarot base, north of Jerusalem, exceeds the Israeli limit – which is considered extremely lax – by 288 percent. Sometimes, it reaches 1,000 percent over the limit. The Israel Police’s Occupational Health and Safety Unit want the base evacuated, but, in the meantime, the police will make do with constant monitoring. The police response: “We’ve set up a committee.”

Uri Blau

Atarot base, north of Jerusalem. Photo: David Vinocur

May 25, 2022

Summary

The head of the Israel Police’s Occupational Health and Safety Unit reported last week at a meeting the details of which are being revealed here for the first time, that serving at the Border Police base in Atarot, north of Jerusalem, “endangers the health of the soldiers” because of the severe air pollution at the site. The recommendation from health officials, therefore, is that the base be evacuated.

The Atarot base, which is frequently mentioned in news reports covering the situation in the West Bank, is home to the Border Police’s Jerusalem unit and, over the years, thousands of soldiers have served there.

The unequivocal recommendation by medical officials to close the base may only have been submitted recently, but the severity of the air pollution problem at Atarot has been well reported for many years. In 2020, Greenpeace Israel published a report, based on data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Jerusalem Municipality, according to which, over the previous five years, annual air pollution exceeded the legal limit by an average of 288 percent. In some years, the level of pollution was 1,000 percent above the legal limit.

The main source of pollution, to which hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in the area are exposed, comes from tiny dust particles, which enter the respiratory system. The legal limit in Israel is currently 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air – which is 2.5 times higher than the World Health Organization’s limit. In the five years before the publication of the Greenpeace report, the average daily level of pollution measured at the Atarot station was 197 micrograms. Prolonged exposure to such high levels of this kind of pollution could lead to lung diseases, such as asthma, as well as lung cancer.

Atarot industrial zone. Photo: David Vinocur
"everyone knows that there’s an issue of air pollution but are not aware of the severity of the risk and the level of pollution here", a Border Police soldier told Shomrim. "You can feel the pollution in the air. At night, the pollution is so bad that you cannot even sit outside – and the smell is terrible,” she added. “I am certain that it’s at a level that harms the health."
In 2020, Greenpeace Israel published a report, based on data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Jerusalem Municipality, according to which, over the previous five years, annual air pollution exceeded the legal limit by an average of 288 percent. In some years, the level of pollution was 1,000 percent above the legal limit.

Several factories operate in the Atarot industrial zone, which was established in 1970 between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and several have closed down. Among them are a cement factory and a plant for sorting waste and construction materials. Following the publication of the Greenpeace report, the Ministry for Environmental Protection said that it had taken a series of measures against the factories contributing to pollution in the area, including the closure of two transit stations used to sort construction waste and a cement plant. Similarly, the ministry claimed, criminal charges had been brought against two additional factories and the criteria for other factories to obtain and keep their operating licenses had been tightened, in an effort to reduce pollution.

Some three years ago, the Kan public broadcaster reported that soldiers from an elite frontline unit were refusing to serve at the Atarot base because of the air pollution there and, in the end, were stationed at a different base. At the time, a spokesperson for the Border Police said that “having conducted special tests to examine the air quality at the base, we began to take action to address the environmental dangers in the area. It was recently decided to invest around 3 million shekels for the purchase of special equipment, which is currently in the process of being acquired. We will continue to carry out rigorous tests and take any action necessary to safeguard the health of soldiers, the quality of the base and the facilities which the soldiers use.”

It now turns out, however, that during an internal discussion, health officials from the Israel Police reported that the situation on the base endangered the health of all those present and called for it to be evacuated. The head of the police’s Occupational Health and Safety Unit, Chief Superintendent Dr. Valerie Shoshan, made the comments at a meeting last week dedicated to the monitoring of pollution at the site. According to the minutes of the meeting, participants were told that “thus far, there have been specific solutions to safeguard the health of the soldiers. A roofing project has been carried out over large parts of the area in question, filtering systems have been installed and there has been regular, although not constant, monitoring.”

Dr. Shoshan told participants that “we are dealing with air pollution that endangers the health of the soldiers and the recommendation of health officials is to order the evacuation and removal of the base from its current location.”

Nonetheless, participants at the meeting heard how, because of the expense involved, “thus far the Israel Police has not yet decided to implement the recommendation of the health professionals.” It was also reported at the meeting that resources have been invested in finding an interim solution, but that the problem is most acute when temperatures and humidity are high. Next month, the deputy commissioner of the police is due to hold a meeting to discuss the issue and, in the meantime, it has been decided to install a monitoring system at the base to keep constant tabs on the air pollution level. This system would, when needed, automatically initiate its air filtering and conditioning capabilities.

Atarot industrial zone. Photo: David Vinocur
The main source of pollution, to which hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in the area are exposed, comes from tiny dust particles, which enter the respiratory system. The legal limit in Israel is currently 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air – which is 2.5 times higher than the World Health Organization’s limit.
Atarot industrial zone. Photo: David Vinocur

One Border Police officer who served at Atarot until recently told Shomrim that the base is situation within the industrial zone. “Clearly, this is a serious problem and tests were carried out all the time,” she said. “The whole base needs to be relocated to a different location,” she added, “and I hope that it will happen soon. I think it’s a question of money and time to find a new location.”

Another soldier said that “everyone knows that there’s an issue of air pollution but are not aware of the severity of the risk and the level of pollution here. You can feel the pollution in the air. At night, the pollution is so bad that you cannot even sit outside – and the smell is terrible,” she added. “I am certain that it’s at a level that harms the health.”

The soldier also told Shomrim about a friend from the base who came down with a severe case of pneumonia. “That’s not the only case,” she says. “We have rest areas which are covered and there are fans because of the pollution, but you can still feel it.” Apart from that, she adds, “there are a lot of open spaces.”

Border Police in action in Jerusalem. Photo: Reuters
Responses

The Israel Police said in response that “over the past few months, we have installed machines and taken measures to reduce the air pollution at the site. Likewise, there is constant monitoring, in coordination with the relevant authorities. A special team has been established to look into the continued presence of soldiers at the base.”

The Ministry of Environmental Protection said in response that “the Ministry of Environmental Protection is in constant contact with the Israel Police on this matter, primarily the head of the Occupational Health and Safety Unit. Between April and October 2021, the ministry deployed a mobile air pollution monitoring system in the yard of the Border Police base in Atarot. During that period, the level of pollution did not exceed the limit set by the Clean Air Regulations for permissible daily levels of breathable particles – PM10.

“At the same time, there were nine occasions when the level of pollution exceeded the limit of PM10, on days that did not experience dust storms. These instances suggest that there is a reason for concern over severe air pollution – even if the levels do not exceed the regulations.

“In addition to the mobile monitoring system, there is also a permanent monitoring system installed close to the concrete plants at Atarot. The average concentrations measured at the temporary monitoring station, which was located adjacent to the Border Police base, is 64 percent lower than the permanent monitoring system located on Hayatziv Street in Atarot.

“The permanent monitoring station, which is located much closer to the source of the emissions (the concrete factories), there were 119 instances of excessive pollution levels and 30 instances of pollution exceeding the alert level.

“Given that the permanent monitoring station continues to return measures that exceed the alert level, at the request of the Jerusalem District, the mobile monitoring station was redeployed at the Border Police base; this station conducts constant monitoring of PM10 breathable particles, as well as finer PM2.5 particles, which had not been monitored at all in Atarot.

“The Ministry of Environmental Protection recommended that the Israel Police install filtering systems in all occupied structures on the Atarot base and that it halts any non-vital or non-operational outdoor activity, to protect the health of soldiers and police officers serving there. The Ministry of Environmental Protection will continue to monitor the data and the particle levels in the area and will formulate recommendations in accordance with the findings from the monitoring station we have installed.”

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.