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The BBC's Hilary Andersson
"A stinking trench of poison"
 real 56k

Monday, 25 September, 2000, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
The Holy Land's poisonous river
factory on the kishon river
Not even bacteria can survive in the Kishon's waters
By Hilary Andersson in Jerusalem

On the edges of the northern Israeli town of Haifa there is a rubbish heap, that is being converted to a public park.

From its benches the town's residents will soon be able to sit surveying the wasteland that this area, holy to some, has become.

The landscape is clogged with factories, belching fire from their towers, and the Kishon River that was once the lifeblood of the region has turned to a stinking trench of poison. Science fiction could not have created a bleaker picture.

sewage being dumped into the Kishon
Factory waste continues to pour in
Put your hand into the river for long enough and, scientists say, the acid will begin to burn it. Yellow froth clings to the river's surface as pipes from the nearby factories and the local sewage plant spew a vile cocktail of biological waste, chemicals, mercury and even arsenic into its waters.

The mixture is so potent according to environmental campaign group Greenpeace, that chemical reactions are taking place under the surface, spawning new toxic substances.

Nowadays nothing can survive in this water, not even bacteria. Tests show that fish put in the water die in less than three minutes. Their whitened undersides litter the river banks as evidence.

Carcinogenic waste

Fishermen, who once worked the river, are now contracting strange diseases. Some of their legs are scarred and look as if they are rotting. The fishermen are worried. Even propellers from their boats last only three or four months, before the metal is eaten by the acids.

Kishon river water
Fish die in just three minutes in this water

"A dog fell in the river right here recently," one fisherman said. "When he got out, he laid on the bank and died."

The pollution of the Kishon River has been going on since the 1930s. Now, because divers from Israel's most elite naval unit, the Commandos, are getting cancer, people have begun to take notice.

More than 80 of the Commandos who trained in the river, men chosen for their physical strength and courage, contracted illnesses.

Seventeen of them have died already. They are suffering from a host of problems ranging from failure of the nervous system, to cancer, kidney failure and brain tumours.

Some of these men spent hundreds of hours in the Kishon, diving in the river, breathing in the fumes, and sometimes even swallowing the water which was trapped in their diving masks.

 Lieutenant Colonel Yuval Tamir
Lt Colonel Tamir: Trained in the river
One of Israel's so called "supermen", Lieutenant Colonel Yuval Tamir, sat in his garden, telling his story.

Weakened by two types of cancer and kidney problems he cannot sleep easily, has to urinate constantly and does not know how long he will live.

My whole life has been taken over by the sickness

Lieutenant Colonel Yuval Tamir
"I have no life of my own, my whole life has been taken over by the sickness. I've gone from being a young man to an old man overnight", said Tamir. "It's hard to deal with in my mind".

He and his colleagues are planning to sue the factories polluting the river, and they want compensation from the military.

Israel's military launched an investigation into the matter earlier this year, but have not yet accepted any responsibility. They are waiting to hear whether scientists can draw a firm link between the pollutants in the river and the illnesses.


Environmental consultant, Ofar Ben-Dov, who is working with Yuval Tamir's lawyers though believes the statistical evidence of a link is overwhelming.

Ofar Ben-Dov
Ofar Ben-Dov: Cancer Links overwhelming
"We know that those chemicals cause cancer, we know that these men were exposed to them, and this group, made up of men who are much stronger than most, now has a rate of cancers and illnesses that is much higher than that of the general public", Ben-Dov said.

More than seven factories are polluting the river. One of the offenders, the Haifa Chemicals factory owned by the American company Trans Resources Inc, produces fertilisers, including Poly-Feed, which are exported around the world.

Clean-up delay

A study by the Greenpeace laboratories at the University of Essex of water sampled directly from an outlet on a discharge pipe from the Haifa Chemicals factory, found high levels of chromium, copper and cadmium in the water.

Kishon river factories
Factories have agreed to stop polluting in two years
Cadmium is named as a carcinogenic material on a list approved by the Israeli Cancer League. It is a substance that is also highly toxic to marine life, and effects the functioning of the kidney in humans and mammals, according to the University of Essex.

Haifa Chemicals says it is already importing phosphates with a lower level of heavy metals in an attempt to control the pollution, and that it is committed to a two year plan to stop polluting the river.

Local authority spokesmen promise that ultimately the waste products will be treated and pumped out to sea.

"Two years is no good", said Nimrod Keren from Greenpeace, "we are worried because people are dying now".

Environmentalists also fear that the waste will still be harmful once it is pumped out to sea. "It'll be like moving pollution from one place to the other," said Ofar Ben-Dov. "Even if the waste is treated some toxins will remain".

Ironically, the Mediterranean, whose waters lap the shores of the "land of milk and honey", is already one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world.

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