There used to be a time when Jerusalemites could breathe easy, assuming their city - unlike Tel Aviv and Haifa - was spared their scourge of air pollution. Not anymore as experts say it's becoming a growing health hazard for the capital.

By Robert Sarner, The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 19, 1997

In 1967, in the opening lines of her famous song, Jerusalem of Gold, Naomi Shemer wrote: "The air of the hills is as pure as wine." At the time, it probably was. Today, 30 years later, the city's air is anything but pure. Jerusalem's air pollution may not yet rival that of Athens, Cairo or Mexico City, but it's heading that way, as it becomes a growing public health issue.

Admittedly, in a city so rife with tension and conflict, it would be hard to "breathe easy" even if the air was clean. But it's decidedly not. As a result, according to experts, breathing in Jerusalem is increasingly hazardous to one's health.

The problem derives from two main sources, one local and the other out-of-town. Jerusalem's fast-growing number of vehicles spewing poisonous fumes on the city's increasingly clogged arteries are not the only guilty party. Jerusalemites also have their compatriots in Tel Aviv to thank for much of the air pollution in the capital.

In the face of the threat to public health, a bevy of outspoken doctors and environmentalists decry that too little is being done to address this modern-day scourge and plan for the future.

"Building more roads is inducing more private car use and more pollution with the result that our 'Jerusalem of gold' is become a 'Jerusalem of soot'," says Dr. Elihu Richter, head of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School. "It's probably no coincidence that the dramatic rise in respiratory conditions has occurred at the same time that air quality has worsened. The pollution produced by cars and trucks is a major factor contributing to a litany of health problems such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, bronchitis, asthma, and even long-term risks of cancer."

In most cities around the world, motor vehicles are a major culprit behind air pollution. Even more so in Jerusalem given that it has so little heavy industry. Like the rest of the country, the fleet of cars and trucks in Jerusalem has grown dramatically in recent years. Between 1986 and 1996, the number of vehicles registered in the city virtually doubled. Today, there are close to 150,000 cars and trucks based in Jerusalem, excluding the thousands of vehicles entering the capital every day from other areas.

This winter, in a sign of increased and long overdue concern over Jerusalem's air quality, officials will replace the city's only monitoring station with highly sophisticated equipment at several locations around town. At a cost of $150,000 each, new American-made air monitoring stations will be installed downtown on Jaffa Road and in Baka, while existing facilities on the roof of City Hall will be upgraded considerably. The new sensors will placed at different heights including, in the case of the one near the Machane Yehuda market, at street level to better evaluate the pollution pedestrians endure downtown.

Until now, there's been an acute shortage of concrete data and research in connection with the city's air. With no telltale halo of thick smog over Jerusalem's skyline, pollution was easily ignored for seemingly more pressing matters. The one monitoring station in use was outdated, and because of its location on the roof of City Hall, did not provide an accurate picture of what people were breathing six floors below at street level. Too often, public officials dismissed air pollution as a problem confined to cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa.

The new monitoring stations in Jerusalem are among the first in a national network, which will eventually include dozens throughout the country.

"I'm very concerned by the reading," says Dr. Geula Scharf, a senior official at the Environment Ministry's Air Quality Division, referring to the first set of figures detected by newly installed pollution monitors in Tel Aviv. "We're finding that several times a month the recorded amount of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are exceeding acceptable limits."

Jerusalemites, however, should be anything but smug about smog in Tel Aviv. Little do most local residents realize that they too suffer from air pollution on the coast, maybe even more than their counterparts in the Big Orange.

"Ironically, although much of Jerusalem's air pollution originates in Tel Aviv," explains Scharf, "Jerusalemites may suffer more, because by the time the pollution reaches the capital, it has been transformed into ozone gas, a secondary pollution, which is more dangerous to people's heath than the primary pollution in Tel Aviv. Although there's only limited data due to the lack of monitors, the preliminary information indicates there's an ozone problem in Jerusalem."

Often subject to public misunderstanding, ozone is a desirable commodity when found 30 kilometers above the earth - providing the famous ozone layer - but is highly dangerous at ground level. It causes fatigue, respiratory problems, and other ailments. Jerusalem's misfortune, when it comes to air pollution, is its location downwind from Mediterranean breezes blowing in from Tel Aviv.

"What we're exposed to here in Jerusalem in terms of ozone began five or six hours earlier in the coastal region as nitrogen oxide and hydro-carbons emitted from vehicles," explains Mordechai Peleg, a senior research scientist specializing in air quality at Hebrew University's Environmental Sciences. "They are then transformed in a photochemical process under the influence of the sun into ozone whose highest concentrations are usually on hot days in the afternoon."

Both in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, cars and trucks have long been identified as the main source of pollution. Although new cars made since 1993 have catalytic converters, they still represent a minority of all vehicles on the road. In addition, many converters are not properly maintained and the obligatory annual checkup, which is supposed to include a test of emission, is often lax.

"It's no secret that emissions are not checked rigorously," says Ronnie Sery, a specialist in vehicular pollution at the Environment Ministry's Air Quality division. "Based on data we've accumulated through spot-checks and research by the Technion Institute, between 30 and 40 percent of all cars do not conform to proper emission levels. But even if the cars are okay, there's also the problem of fuel quality and its content. For example, in Israel there's often a high sulfur content in the diesel fuel used by about 20 percent of vehicles, especially trucks and buses which generate a disproportionately high source of pollution."

The grassroots ecological organization, Union for Environmental Defense, (UED), says the public is paying a heavy price for the internal bickering between the Environment, Transport and Finance ministries. The situation now is that the Transport Ministry has most of the legal authority over pollution controls of private and commercial vehicles.

This week, the UED petitioned the High Court of Justice to require the Environment Minister to sign various proposed regulations and to stop waiting for other government bodies to retract their opposition.

"For years, there's been draft legislation on regulations for emissions supported by the Environment Ministry, but the proposed laws have been delayed time and again due to resistance from the Transport Ministry," says Danny Fisch, a lawyer and director of the UED. "It's only logical that the Environment Ministry be the ones empowered to deal with pollution prevention and that's what we're hoping to achieve through our court action."

In the absence of major government initiatives regarding mass transit, the number of cars in Jerusalem will continue to soar at a staggering pace, with air quality worsening in the process.

"The new monitors are an important step, even if they're long overdue," says Elke Haberfeld-Mendelf, an urban climatologist at the UED, "but what's the next step? You need to develop policies and management plans for resolving the air pollution problem. I don't see any long-term planning on either the national or municipal level."

At the Jerusalem Municipality, two of the ten people working in the Environment Department concentrate on air pollution in the city. "Maybe one day we'll become like Paris, and we'll have to close down streets and limit cars entering the city," says Nadine Spiz, air quality coordinator at the Jerusalem Municipality. "But for now such a situation seems a distant prospect although we've had a number of isolated days during the summer when the ozone levels exceeded permissible levels. Once the new monitors are in operation, we plan to prepare a map of areas where pollution is high and to act against such excessive levels."

By way of example, Spiz says if her team were to find high levels on Jaffa Road, they might push for electric buses instead of the current diesel buses that are a major source of particulates and nitrogen oxide. But her unit has no administrative power and can only make recommendations to the City Engineer.

Others view the situation in more ominous terms. "We're headed for an Athens, Los Angeles, Mexico City scenario," says Dr. Richter. "It's just a matter of time. Since there have been so few air quality monitors in use, there's been this perception that there's virtually no problem. But the problem exists and will worsen, especially with the opening of the city's Road 4 expressway."

Richter is angry at what he denounces as efforts, including misinformation, aimed at downplaying the issue. Citing the impact of the future Trans-Israel Highway (Hwy 6), he claims winds blowing east will transport dangerous amounts of gases and particulates from car exhausts to Jerusalem.

"The overseas investors in the project will walk away with lots of cash, our kids will be left with a cough and maybe worse," adds Richter. "The planners of Highway 6 insist that it will relieve traffic in towns and cities and as such will lower pollution. At best, the factual basis for such a claim is dubious."

In Jerusalem, a city already bedeviled by terrorist bombings, secular-religious strife, Jewish-Arab tensions, exorbitant municipal taxes, and radon gas, residents are discovering yet another menace undermining life in the Holy City. The question is how long it will take for authorities to really tackle the problem of air pollution. Don't hold your breath. Or rather, maybe you should...

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