The Environmental Protection Ministry has been unable to determine the cause of a mysterious odor that affected the Tel Aviv area for several hours last month, but has concluded that it lacks the proper means to sample and analyze low concentrations of hazardous materials that might have produced the smell.
The ministry received nearly 2,000 complaints about what was described by residents in the city and surrounding communities as a chemical smell, possibly chlorine, in the air during the morning hours of May 3. Technical crews were dispatched shortly after the first calls came in, in an effort to track down the source of the smell, but without success.
A team led by Rani Amir, head of the ministry’s Marine and Coastal Division, appointed later to study the event, was also unable to determine the cause of the odor. The investigators ruled out several possible causes, including offshore drilling for natural gas and defense-related activities.
A second team, this one headed by Tzur Galin, chief of the ministry’s Air Quality Division, began carrying out its own investigation.
One of the problems encountered by the investigators was the lack of means to sample and analyze low concentrations of hazardous materials, levels significant enough to cause noxious smells but not enough to cause harm to people or the environment.
The ministry’s mobile hazmat units are capable of detecting thousands of harmful chemicals and other substances, but only at higher concentrations. They are not equipped with bags or purpose-built containers for collecting air samples for further testing. Nor does the ministry have an arrangement in place under which another entity could be dispatched to collect such samples for study.
Ministry officials say that such measures in any case would have been useless in last month’s odor event. The ministry said in a statement that it is reviewing options for dealing with similar events in the future, including contracting with an external laboratory that has the sampling and testing capabilities it lacks.
Scientific professionals in the ministry called attention to another problem: Although the ministry has three gas chromatography-mass spectrometry instruments, which are used to identify substances present in a test sample, and pays more than NIS 1 million a year for their upkeep, it has been several years since anyone trained to use the machines has been on the ministry payroll.
The ministry acknowledged the problem in an official response that also stated that there is no certainty that GCMS could have helped identify the culprit in last month’s odor event. The response statement also indicated that the ministry is negotiating with the Home Front Command and other agencies about taking the instruments off its hands.
The ministry went on to say that during the event and afterward it coordinated its activities with the state meteorological services and sent samples from its air monitoring stations to various laboratories throughout the country. “Since the odor event is under criminal investigation we cannot comment on the findings at this stage,” the ministry said.