Safe management of hazardous substances is one of Israel’s most pressing environmental concerns. Appropriate safety and control procedures for the import, manufacture, storage, use and transport of hazardous substances and their wastes must be viewed as an integral element in the development of the country.
Management of Hazardous Materials
Hazardous materials are widely used by Israel’s chemicals, defense, electronics, and metals industries, as well as in homes, hospitals, research facilities and agriculture. The substances estimated at about 8,000 cover a broad range, including explosive, inflammable, corrosive and radioactive materials.
Provisions for the handling of hazardous substances are under the authority of a number of government agencies. While the Hazardous Materials Division of the Ministry of the Environment is the main body responsible for the management of hazardous substances, further centralization of powers and responsibilities for the management of hazardous substances from "cradle to grave" is still required. Today, the Ministry of the Environment coordinates its activities with other authorities including the Ministries of Health, Transport, Labor and Welfare, Interior, Defense, the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Standards Institute, and local authorities.
Industrial Use of Hazardous Substances
Environmental units in local authorities have received Ministry of the Environment guidelines on the identification of plants producing various types of hazardous substances, and on appropriate methods of storage, handling and disposal. The guidelines cover companies that employ hazardous materials in industrial processes, even when the final product is not itself hazardous. In addition to these guidelines, environmental conditions are imposed through the Licensing of Businesses Law. The conditions include reporting on the types and quantities of hazardous substances, monitoring, and safety precautions. For some new industrial plants, environmental impact statements are required. Suitable programs for the storage, treatment and transport of hazardous materials must be approved.
In recent years, the addition of qualified personnel and modern equipment for the detection, monitoring and assessment of chemical contaminants at the district as well as the local level has led to positive results. Emergency response teams are aided by the Ministry of the Environment’s Environmental Research Institute, which is active in the field of hazardous substances monitoring, analysis and research, and operates both a chemical laboratory and a sophisticated mobile laboratory.
At the district level, the Ministry of the Environment grants special permits for the handling of toxic substances to any business that wants to produce, use, store, transport or sell poisons.
Transport of Hazardous Substances
Transporting hazardous substances is dangerous and difficult in Israel. The roads are sometimes narrow, and the principal arteries pass through densely populated areas. The location of the national hazardous waste disposal site at Ramat Hovav in the south, eminently justified by other factors, adds to the problem, since so many industrial facilities are located in Israel’s north.
Principal responsibility for the transport of hazardous substances rests with the Ministry of Transportation, which has promulgated regulations covering all hazardous materials transport. These regulations impose emergency preparation measures, as well as specific packing, labelling, vehicle-marking (including the United Nations symbol for hazardous substances) requirements. Special licenses must be obtained for both drivers and vehicles. More recently, special "No Entrance" road signs have been posted to prohibit vehicles loaded with hazardous substances from passing through densely populated centers.
Contingency Plans and Emergency Procedures
In 1980, the Environmental Protection Service commissioned a study on the safeguarding of environmental quality and public welfare during accidents in industrial plants. This study served as the basis for the preparation of a contingency plan for accidents in chemical plants. A model information file was developed, with data on the substances used by specific plants, guidelines for safe operation, storage and disposal, as well as procedures to be undertaken in case of emergency. The study recommended that every plant designated as a potential safety risk prepare such a file for emergency use.
The Bhopal catastrophe of 1984, in which thousands were killed by poison gas leaking from a pesticide plant, precipitated the establishment of an interministerial committee to study the handling of hazardous substances in Israel, particularly during emergency conditions. This committee submitted recommendations regarding: the prevention of accidents in potentially dangerous plants; the supervision and follow-up of safety procedures; guidelines for action in emergencies; the allocation of responsibility among government ministries, local authorities, industry, the army and police; plans for dealing with a major accident; and data collection and scientific research. Based on the committee’s recommendations, the government established an information center for hazardous substances in 1987, to be maintained by the Ministry of Defense. Today, the Ministry of the Environment is creating a center, which will supply information upon request, twenty-four hours a day, on all matters relating to hazardous materials. The ministry is also responsible for preparing contingency plans for accidents and emergencies, and for organizing professional teams to deal with such accidents. In emergencies, experts are despatched to the scene equipped with the means and equipment for identifying, assessing, monitoring and, wherever possible, neutralizing the hazardous materials involved.
Treatment and Disposal of Hazardous Waste
Until the mid-1970s, Israeli industries improvised their own methods of hazardous waste disposal from storage on their own grounds to discharge into municipal waste sites, sewage systems, watercourses, the sea, vacant lots and abandoned quarries. The cumulative quantity of hazardous waste discharged into the environment without supervision or control since 1948 is estimated at tens of thousands of tons.
In 1977, Ramat Hovav, located about 12 kilometers south of Be’er Sheva, was designated as a national disposal site for hazardous waste. Geological, hydrological and demographic factors led to the selection of this location. The original plan for Ramat Hovav envisaged operation as a treatment plant and not merely a dumping ground. However, from the time of the site’s opening in 1979 to 1987, wastes that arrived at the site were haphazardly received, stored and treated. Only in 1988 did the first neutralization facility begin operating at the site, but to- date no satisfactory solution has been found to the fuel industry sludge or the ever-increasing quantities of organic substances in Ramat Hovav.
The quantities of hazardous wastes which reached the site increased from 7,000 tons in 1985 to 25,000 in 1988, to 44,000 in 1989 and 40,000 in 1991. The 40,000 ton figure reflects only about half of the hazardous waste produced annually. Most of the waste is contributed by chemical plants in the vicinity of Ramat Hovav, but hundreds of producers, some generating as little as one to thirty tons of hazardous waste yearly, still are not treating or disposing of their hazardous waste as required by recent regulations. Since the regulations require that all hazardous waste be properly treated, recycled, or deposited at Ramat Hovav, stricter control and enforcement by the municipalities is necessary. It should improve, as data collected by local environmental units becomes available for comparison with reports on quantities, types and producers of hazardous waste provided by Ramat Hovav’s management. Of the waste that does reach the site, acid sludge comprises 22%, inorganic acid solutions 18%, precipitates 17%, organic substances 14%, and alkaline solutions 11%. The apparent decrease in material reaching Ramat Hovav between 1989 and 1991 is the result of in-house recycling recently undertaken by a large manufacturer of pesticides, fungicides and agrochemicals. This company, which previously disposed of 20,000 tons of hazardous waste annually at the disposal site in Ramat Hovav, now sells its purified acids to a major fertilizer plant for use as raw materials in the production of phosphate fertilizers.
Pesticides in Agriculture
Pesticides used for agricultural purposes constitute an important percentage of all chemicals found in the environment in Israel. About 350 different pesticides are used in the country. Several local factors exacerbate the problem of all three forms of pesticides: herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Agriculture is intensive, and crops are grown throughout the year. As a result of the hot (and in some areas, relatively humid) climate, crops are prone to attack by a large number of pests, diseases, weeds and animals. In addition, greenhouses, which are increasingly used, provide very receptive microclimates for the growth of pests. Some of the crops grown in Israel notably cotton are chemical- intensive.
The director of the Pesticides Division of the Plant Protection and Inspection Department of the Ministry of Agriculture has responsibility for approving all licenses for pesticides. The registration process begins with testing over a period of months or years, followed by provisional approval for limited use. Finally, when comprehensive toxicological data have been gathered, an advisory committee composed of representatives of several ministries including the Ministry of the Environment, decides whether or not to approve the product for final registration.
– Pesticide Residues
Pesticide residues find their way into food, water, air and soil (where special problems arise when edible crops are grown in soil previously treated with pesticides intended for non-edible crops). A comprehensive system for preventing pesticide residues does not yet exist in Israel. Improvements have been made, with regard to increased testing and monitoring, and stricter enforcement.
Although most pesticides used in Israel break down within three to sixty days, residues in food may have long-term toxic effects. Thus, application of these substances must be limited, and discontinued altogether a certain period of time prior to harvesting. Every pesticide container is labelled with the latest day of permitted use before harvest. These measures must be carefully policed.
The level of pesticides contained in Israeli export produce meets standards recommended by the WHO and the FAO, as well as the higher standards imposed by the European Community. Produce intended for export is tested regularly by the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure that these standards are being met; produce intended for the local market is tested only sporadically. The Ministry of Health is in charge of monitoring and testing food products. It has the power to confiscate and destroy any fruit, vegetable, or dairy product which does not meet regulatory standards.
Storage places for pesticides in rural areas are monitored by inspectors of the Division for the Prevention of Pollution by Poisons of the Nature Reserves Authority (NRA), under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment. Since empty pesticide containers pose a serious health hazard, procedures for the neutralization and reuse of containers should be regulated and supervised.
– Integrated Pest Management
Partial solutions to the problem of pesticides and herbicides in the environment require integrated pest management: biological control and replacement of traditional pesticides with pest- specific substances that disrupt the life cycle of pests without harming their natural enemies. New technological methods, based on a theory similar to drip irrigation, ensure a minimum discharge of nitrates to the soil, and maximal utilization by the plant. Herbicides that decompose as a result of microbial actions in the weed’s environment have also been developed. Biological control methods used in place of chemicals are helping to reduce pesticide use without lowering agricultural output. The increasing demand for organic produce will also help curb pesticide use.
The licensing process for insecticides for home use is separate from the process for agricultural use. In 1992, a committee was established, equally composed of representatives from the Ministries of Health and Environment, for the purpose of licensing insecticides for home use and public health use.
The Ministry of the Environment advises and guides local authorities in combatting pests which are harmful to man, whether as nuisances or as disease-carriers (especially mosquitos). For this purpose, monitoring, education, guidance and direction are provided. The Ministry of the Environment is also responsible for the licensing and supervision of exterminators. Efforts are concentrated primarily on increased training, careful licensing, and supervision over the improper use and handling of pest-control substances for home use. Specific guidelines on the storage of insecticides for home use have been prepared and disseminated.
Legal Framework for the Management of Hazardous Materials
Hazardous waste management is still controlled by a wide variety of legal provisions, under the responsibility of different enforcement authorities. To provide for the safe management of hazardous substances, a comprehensive hazardous substances control law is required to unify the regulatory framework, restrain or eliminate potential dangers to health and the environment, and provide the necessary authority for inspection, supervision and enforcement.
A major breakthrough occurred in 1990, when the Ministry of the Environment promulgated regulations pursuant to the Licensing of Businesses Law and the Public Health Ordinance, which require industrial plants to dispose of hazardous wastes at the Ramat Hovav site no later than six months after production. Procedures for inspection and supervision, manner of packing, transport and disposal to Ramat Hovav are specified in these regulations. Any disposal elsewhere for purposes of recycling, reuse or other treatment must be approved by the Ministry of the Environment.
A 1991 amendment to the Commodities and Services (Control) Order, which deals with materials for the extermination of pests harmful to man, establishes a committee empowered to grant licenses for pesticides used in public health and domestic use. The committee is composed of an equal number of representatives from the Ministry of the Environment and Ministry of Health.
The Protection of Plants Law gives the Minister of Agriculture authority over the import, sale, and use of pesticides and hormones used on plants and animals, and permits a special department set up within the Ministry of Agriculture to refuse to permit the sale or use of a pesticide not proved to the department’s satisfaction to be environmentally safe.
The Pharmacists’ Ordinance empowers the Minister of the Environment to license and regulate all aspects of use and transfer of toxic substances, with the exception of medical drugs.
The Safety of Workers Law covers the handling of harmful substances in the workplace. The Public Health (Foods) Ordinance provides for the establishment of standards for maximum permissible levels of harmful substances pesticides, for example in food.
A 1991 amendment to the Regulations on Safety at Work (Industrial Hygiene and Public Health for Workers Exposed to Asbestos, Talc, and Crystalline Silicon Dioxide) reflects Israel’s increased concern over the improper use of asbestos and its by- products. The amended regulations restrict the import of asbestos, set strict standards for worker exposure, broaden the prohibitions on the marketing of asbestos and its components in various products, and prohibit textile products containing asbestos. The Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Labor and Welfare are responsible for the implementation of the regulations.