What we can do about asbestos in Israel

When we first came to Jerusalem, my husband took me to an old favorite restaurant of his in Even Sapir. It was one of the few Indian restaurants in the city, and we wanted to take a walk around a quiet neighborhood afterward. Full of chappatis and daal, we wandered the streets of Even Sapir, imagining moving there, rebuilding the neighborhood, inviting our friends to come join us in our new suburban oasis. That is, until we noticed the dozens of asbestos-roofed skeletons of overgrown agricultural structures dotting the landscape. Rebuilding this neighborhood would be no small task.

Damaged asbestos roof in Israel (photo credit: Yael Revivo, Ynet)
Damaged asbestos roof in Israel (photo credit: Yael Revivo, Ynet)

Living in Israel, the image of these structures with asbestos roofs is completely commonplace. Left alone or managed properly, the asbestos poses little to no threat. However, the demand for land in Israel has made it such that these structures occupy valuable building space. This is particularly true in urban areas — like in Jerusalem — where many asbestos structures still stand.

Asbestos is a mineral that was used commonly in the 50s and 60s due to its strength, its resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage. It was cheap and could be used in a number of industrial applications. Asbestos’s structure is made up of millions of microscopic needles that can become airborne when the asbestos is cracked, pulverized, or broken. When people breathe it in, the needles penetrate into lung tissue, and are never excreted by the body. Unlike many other chemicals used today, asbestos is not suspected to be a carcinogen, IT IS a carcinogen.

The needle-like crystalline structure of asbestos (photo credit: Wikipedia)
The needle-like crystalline structure of asbestos (photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s important to note here that a single, high-level exposure to asbestos or even a short period of exposure to lower levels poses little to no risk. However, those who work with damaged asbestos materials, and particularly their children are at risk. When a worker returns home covered in asbestos dust, their children breathe it in, and their tiny lungs are much more susceptible to its effects than an adult’s would be.

Unlike many other problems in Israel, the asbestos problem is being overtly tackled by the government. In order to clear these asbestos structures from their valuable perches to make way for multimillion dollar building projects, developers are required to work with the Ministry of Environmental Protection to ensure the safe and proper collection, transport and disposal of the asbestos. The Ministry has put years of work and millions of shekels worth of funding into managing the problem of dismantling these structures. The dismantling consists of cordoning off the area, providing workers with safe suits and masks, carefully packaging the asbestos, removing any earth from the area that may contain traces of the dust, and transporting the packaged waste to a hazardous waste site in the Negev where it is buried. For more information, check out the Ministry’s site on asbestos here.

The collection, transportation and disposal of asbestos is burdensome and expensive, but it is extremely necessary for the safety of citizens and the preservation of Israel’s environment.

Unfortunately, many contractors and developers are notorious for cutting corners to save on costs. As frustrating as it may be, a leak here, a lower-quality material there, a bit of shoddy workmanship, these are all things that as Israeli renters and homeowners, we have come to recognize as commonplace. These are things that can be fixed, and that really pose no threat. However, when a contractor asks their laborers to dismantle asbestos-filled buildings with their bare hands, without masks, without safety suits, to load them bare onto a flatbed truck, and to drive the materials to an illegal dumping location… well, that’s a corner that’s being cut at the detriment of citizens’ health and society at large. And it is a crime.

The picture below was taken the first week of February on Derech Beit Lechem in Jerusalem. It shows workers without proper safety gear loading broken pieces of asbestos roofing over an uncovered bench onto the back of a pickup truck. The land they are clearing is of the most valuable in the city, and will no doubt be the future home of luxury condominiums that will be sold for millions of dollars. Only pure greed could cause a developer in such a lucrative position to cut such a corner.

Illegal asbestos collection on Derech Beit Lechem, Jerusalem
Illegal asbestos collection on Derech Beit Lechem, Jerusalem

So here’s the part where I am particularly concerned, and where we are all responsible. As citizens, and as a community, we are responsible for keeping our eyes open to things that may be a danger to one another, and we are responsible for self-policing those dangers by alerting the correct authorities. We may have gotten used to seeing these asbestos structures everywhere, but we mustn’t get used to seeing it being handled haphazardly. We have no idea how much dust is being created, who is breathing it in, who the unfortunate workers are, who their children are, nor where the asbestos will be dumped. Perhaps at the trailhead of your favorite hike in the Jerusalem forest, in the fields outside of a poor neighborhood full of children, or even in your own backyard. So, if you see asbestos being improperly handled, or even if you suspect it may be being mishandled, call the numbers below and alert the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Green Police.

For the Ministry of Environmental Protection: *6911 or 089253321

For the Israeli Green Police: 089788888.

About the Author
Kerin Jacobs is a social entrepreneur and prior to aliyah, worked in cleantech venture capital in China. She is passionate about preserving the environment, promoting clean technologies, and inspiring people to live cleaner, healthier lives.