Subject: [cwj 25] Deadly Toxins- Japan's Dirty Secret
From: Corporate Watch in Japanese <>
Date: Fri, 26 May 2000 16:44:17 -0700
Seq: 25

Japan's Dirty Secret
Time Magazine
As deadly toxins poison the environment, the government is doing its best 
to avoid the issue


Keiko Saito wasn't concerned when a plastic-waste compacting plant opened 
down the street from her house in Suginami, a well-to-do Tokyo suburb. 
After all, the government had reassured residents that the neatly landscaped 
facility posed no danger. But soon after the plant started running four 
years ago, Saito's breasts began swelling painfully, as if she were pregnant. 
Her testosterone level shot through the roof. Whiskers sprouted on her 
chin, forcing Saito, now age 63, to start shaving. Her hair tested positive 
for arsenic, lead and mercury--all at high levels. She has to concentrate 
to avoid slurring her words and sometimes has trouble thinking clearly. 
"I feel," she says slowly, "as if I am standing in the middle of a mist."

More than 400 people living near the Suginami Waste Transfer Station have
frightening symptoms since the plant opened, according to the Society 
to Get Rid of Suginami Sickness, a citizens' group. Local doctors are 
baffled, but Atsushi Katsuki, a specialist in environmental science at 
Takachiho University in Tokyo, thinks the problem is massive over-exposure 
to chemicals. He cites the waste station as the likely culprit. "It should 
be closed immediately," he says. A series of surveys by Tokyo city uncovered 
more than 90 toxic substances around the site, including dioxin, one of 
the deadliest known to man. But nobody, from ward bureaucrats up to the 
head of Japan's Environment Agency, suggests closing it. "Unless we can 
pinpoint the cause," says agency chief Kayoko Shimizu, "we can't formulate 
a policy." 

This is ground zero in Japan's toxic waste wars. Tragically, the country 
has been here before. It was the searing images of the nerve-damaged children 
of Minamata Bay in the 1970s that helped awaken the world to the threat 
of mercury pollution. Today, some environmentalists and scientists warn 
of a potentially more devastating crisis. After decades of ignoring the 
dangers of toxic chemicals and hazardous waste, Japan is pockmarked with 
thousands of dangerous hot spots--from leaky garbage dumps and clandestine 
toxic-waste sites to aging incinerators belching dioxin. The nation's 
incinerators churn out almost 40% of the world's emissions of dioxin and 
furan--a related contaminant--according to a report issued last year by 
the United Nations Environment Program. Earlier this month, four Greenpeace 
activists scaled a building beside an incinerator facility in Tokyo and 
dropped a protest banner proclaiming Tokyo the world's dioxin capital. 
Even the Americans have gotten a whiff. An incinerator spewing dioxin-laden 
exhaust onto the grounds of a U.S. Navy base south of Tokyo has turned 
into a sore point for U.S.-Japan relations. Angered by Tokyo's reluctance 
to take action, the U.S. recently filed a lawsuit in a Yokohama court 
demanding closure of the facility.
Dioxin and many of the other poisons are hard to detect, and their impact on 
health is tough to pin down. But in contrast to Minamata, the problem 
is not confined to one poison and one place. Says Jun Ui, a University 
of Okinawa expert in pollution: "This is a terrible risk for the health 
of Japanese."

Suginami symbolizes the danger. Other toxic trouble spots tend to be messy 
and smelly: big garbage sites set in remote hills, incinerators scorching 
the sides of forest slopes with their deadly fumes. The Suginami waste 
plant, built half underground and mostly covered by a grassy park where 
youngsters play guitar and families stroll with their dogs, looks neat, 
tidy, innocuous. The short exhaust vent that juts up into the park spews 
no smoke. But unlike Minamata, which was located hundreds of kilometers 
from Tokyo in southern Japan, Suginami sits in the heart of the Japanese 

The toxic threat is energizing Japan's environmental movement. Citizens' 
groups--small, underfunded but combative--are testing air and water
then demanding that bureaucrats take action. The government doesn't appear 
to be listening. The environment and people's health, it seems, still 
take a distant back seat to the imperatives of economic growth. Official 
Japan is starting to talk the environmental talk: bureaucrats and politicians 
spin visions of a "recycling society," and every company, it seems, "loves 
the Earth." But old ways die hard. A furor erupted recently over a government 
plan to tear up a pristine forest area in Aichi prefecture to build thousands 
of houses for the 2005 World Exposition. Under pressure from a citizens' 
group and the World Expo ruling body in Paris, the government backed down 
in March, unveiling a more modest plan. The Expo's theme? Living in harmony 
with nature. 

Bigger ministries with mandates to promote economic growth regularly trample 
on the turf of the chronically underfunded Environment Ministry. The
Construction Ministry, in charge of Japan's rivers, gets more funding 
for managing--and damming--these waterways than the environment agency 
has in its entire budget. Few bureaucrats seem willing to rock the system. 
Just as official Japan dithered while mercury poisoning took dozens of 
lives in Minamata, Tokyo appears to be hoping today's problems will just 
go away. "The government's knee-jerk reaction to a new pollution threat 
is denial," says Shunichi Teranishi, an expert on environmental economics 
at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University. Officials respond, he adds, only when 
problems become crises.

The residents of Suginami ward certainly feel as if they are getting the 
runaround. A citizens' group demanded the closure of the plant five months 
after it opened. The pleas were ignored. Hiroshi Yamada, who was elected 
the ward's mayor last year on a promise to tackle the problem, is
But he says shutting the plant would cost Suginami more than $18 million 
a year--the plant squeezes about 10 truckloads of garbage into one, so 
closing it would force the ward to shell out for a bigger transport fleet. 
Tokyo's no-nonsense governor Shintaro Ishihara talks tough about clamping 
down on trucks polluting the air with diesel fumes. But for Suginami, 
he has done little more than set up a committee to study the problem. 
In a report issued in March, the committee said hydrogen sulfide in plant 
waste water and creosote used to protect nearby trees caused the residents' 
illnesses. But the committee said these problems were solved three years 
ago. "This doesn't explain the symptoms," says Nobuyasu Morigami, a former 
resident of Suginami and member of the citizens' group Get Rid of Suginami 
Sickness. "People are dying a slow death." 

For all its problems, the Suginami plant is just a rest stop along the 
highway of waste running from homes and businesses in Tokyo to final disposal 
grounds, usually in the countryside. Chronically short of dump sites, 
Tokyo and other big Japanese cities ship much of their garbage to surrounding 
rural communities. That is where the waste wars start to get really nasty.

One battleground is Hinodecho, once a quiet village nestled in the mountains 
an hour's train ride west of Tokyo. The spot was so scenic that artist 
Seizo Tashima settled there with his wife in 1969 to escape the pressures 
of the city, raise vegetables and paint scenes of wild animals and woods 
for childrens' books. In the summers, he sketched while his children swam 
in a mountain spring behind the house; the air was filled with the scent 
of wildflowers and fir. "The wind was warm," recalls Tashima. "I thought 
I had moved to the ideal location." 

Paradise ended abruptly when the first garbage dump opened just 200 m 
behind his house. The gouge in the mountains swallowed up the children's 
swimming hole and a huge swath of the surrounding forest. Trying to ignore 
the devastation, Tashima avoided looking back when he stepped outside. 
But the garbage trucks that rumbled in every day from the suburbs of Tokyo 
sometimes carried an awful cargo: dioxin-laced ash. Dioxin, a byproduct 
of some types of pesticide and paper production, is also released when 
plastics are burned. It has been linked to cancer and is suspected of 
disrupting the hormones that regulate biological processes like sexual 
development. When the trucks dumped their loads, the ash floated down 
the valley. Downwind, the cancer rate soared to four times the national 
average; 18 people in a village of 271 died of cancer in less than a decade, 
according to a survey by the Hinode Forest, Water and Life Society, a 
citizens' group. (The town's government says the rate hasn't risen.)
warm winds had turned deadly. Two years ago, doctors told him he too had 
cancer and cut out two-thirds of his stomach. 

In 1991, when the municipal association that runs the dump site announced 
plans to build a second one, Tashima and some of his neighbors decided 
to fight back. His wife Kiyoe launched a lawsuit demanding that the
disclose the results of water-quality tests it carried out around the 
first dump. The court ruled in her favor and, when the association refused 
to hand over the data, ordered it to pay more than $1,240 a day into Kiyoe's 
bank account. A higher court overturned the ruling, however, and told 
her to return the money. Kiyoe still tried to make her point: she put 
the money--$1.3 million--into two garbage bags and handed it back. 

But the protests failed. A hundred trucks a day now roll into the new 
site, which is bigger than the first. At one stage, Tashima and 2,800 
fellow crusaders from all over Japan purchased a patch of woodland on 
the edge of the dump to stage protests and block the site's expansion. 
But Tokyo expropriated the land "for the public benefit," using tactics 
that Tashima calls "arrogant." The activists' protest banners and sculptures 
will be demolished. The bureaucrats deny using heavy-handed tactics.

None of this fits with the picture Japan likes to present to the world. 
In the official mythology, the country solved its pollution problems a 
quarter-century ago and now has anti-pollution experience and technology 
to share with the rest of the world. There is some truth to this. Japan 
confronted a major environmental crisis in the 1960s and early '70s as 
rapid industrialization turned Tokyo Bay into a vast zone of factories, 
petrochemical plants and diesel-belching trucks. Around the country, as 
tens of thousands fell ill with asthma and other respiratory diseases, 
Japan finally reacted, passing air-quality laws that were then among world's 
toughest. As victims of Minamata fought for compensation in the courts, 
the government set a safety standard for mercury in fish.

But Japan's economy has grown dramatically since then. Today the country's 
roads are clogged with 74 million vehicles, five times the number in the 
late '60s. Air pollution levels exceed government health standards at 
almost all roadside monitoring stations. As in other countries, the use 
of new plastics and chemicals has soared. Much of them end up in the 1.2 
million tons of garbage and industrial waste Japan churns out every day, 
enough to fill 600,000 of the garbage trucks that deposit their cargo 
at the Hinodecho dump. 

This growing flood of household and industrial waste is straining the 
system. When it was built in 1984, Hinodecho was one of the biggest dumps 
in Japan; today it is dwarfed by newer sites. Yet Japan is quickly running 
out of places to put its waste, and a not-in-my-backyard sentiment is 
growing. As a result, some of the refuse gets shipped overseas: in January, 
Japan had to retrieve thousands of tons of medical and other waste illegally 
shipped to the Philippines by a Japanese company. The rest of the overflow 
ends up in clandestine dumps at the side of quiet dirt roads cut into 
the mountains--almost half a million tons a year, according to official 
figures. The number of illegal toxic waste sites has doubled to nearly 
1,300 since the mid-'90s, Japan's Health Ministry reports. Environmentalist 
Tetsuo Sekiguchi fears the real figure is much higher: "The government 
is covering up this problem." 

That's not the only problem Japan isn't coming clean on. Though dioxin 
contamination is a global issue, Japan is one of the world's worst offenders. 
Short of space, the country favors burning--there are about 1,800
incinerators in Japan (the U.S. has about 250) and thousands more licensed 
and unlicensed hazardous waste incinerators. Many are pouring dioxin into 
the air at levels far above what most of the rest of the world considers 

Americans living at the Atsugi U.S naval base southwest of Tokyo found 
that out the hard way. A nearby incinerator burning toxic industrial waste 
has been fouling the base for more than a decade. A joint U.S.-Japan survey 
last year of the local air and soil found the highest level of airborne 
dioxin contamination ever recorded in Japan. Tokyo has agreed to try to 
fix the problem, but dioxin-laden fumes continue to waft into the housing 
where the sailors' families live. So far, the complaints are mostly about 
asthma and other respiratory problems. But the Navy considers Atsugi so 
dangerous it requires anyone posted there to be thoroughly briefed on 
the health risks in advance, the only base in the world with such a

Japanese citizens exposed to dioxin in other parts of the country have 
considerably less clout than the U.S. government. When an incinerator 
outside the town of Nose was forced to shut down in 1997, it was much 
too late for workers like Mitsuo Takeoka, who believes the cancer he
resulted from dioxin exposure on the job. Hideaki Miyata, a dioxin expert 
at Osaka's Setsunan University, says if dioxin is not the direct cause 
of cancer, it certainly speeds its growth. Less than an hour's drive from 
Osaka, Nose was once known for its rolling green hills and flavorful
Now it is infamous as one of the most dioxin-polluted spots in Japan. 
In 1998, government experts checking the area just outside Nose's incinerator 
found the highest levels of dioxin soil contamination ever recorded in 

That probably came as no surprise to Takeoka, 69, who worked inside the 
plant for eight years, moving rubbish and checking meters. He had no idea 
that the fine dust that clogged the air might be deadly. But in 1996, 
he found he had colon cancer. The tumor was removed, but two years later 
he was in the hospital with rectum cancer. By January of this year, the 
cancer had spread to both lungs, and doctors said it was too late to have 
another operation. He barely has the strength now to tell his story: "It 
is all so wretched. I never imagined something like this could happen." 

Linking the plant to his illness won't be easy, but Takeoka wants to try. 
Last year, he and five other workers filed a lawsuit against officials 
in charge of the incinerator as well as the plant's manufacturer, Mitsui 
Engineering & Shipbuilding, and two subsidiaries. The first such suit 
by incinerator workers, it demands $5 million in damages. At the initial 
hearing in March, a judge heard that Takeoka's blood contains 12 times 
more dioxin per gram of fat than does the average person. There is no 
indication the incinerator has affected the health of Nose residents, 
who don't live close by. But nobody seems eager to buy their chestnuts 

Japan has known of the dangers for decades. The whole world took note 
in 1976 when a chemical plant exploded in Seveso, Italy, raining a cloud 
of dioxin on surrounding communities. In the early 1980s, a Japanese
issued a public warning about dioxin. The Ministry of Health and Welfare 
ignored it. Evidence of the chemical's dangers piled up, but Japan didn't 
get around to setting emissions rules until 1997. Loose by international 
standards, they aren't seriously enforced, environmentalists say. When 
inspectors came to places like Nose, clever incinerator bosses simply 
burned less of the bad stuff. Katsuo Hatanaka, a former worker at the 
Nose plant who is also suing, suffers from skin diseases that he blames 
on dioxin. "Our plant used to add kerosene to the incinerator to make 
it burn cleaner while the inspectors were around," he says. Mitsui
won't comment on allegations about the plant. 

Activist scientists, responding to cries for help from Nose's workers 
and others, finally forced the issue onto the national agenda last year. 
As horror stories about dioxin-plagued communities started hitting the 
headlines, Tokyo finally passed a package of dioxin legislation, including 
a law setting a limit on how much of the chemical Japanese could safely 
ingest each day: 4 picograms per kg of body weight. 

The legislation may be too little, too late. That level is at the upper 
limit of the World Health Organization's standard of 1 to 4 picograms. 
The who actually recommends bringing intake down to less than 1 picogram. 
What's more, Tokyo didn't set any dioxin safety standards for fish--a 
dangerous omission, critics say, in a country where seafood is an important 
part of the diet. Japan isn't ready, counters Environment Agency head 
Shimizu. "We passed the dioxin laws only last year," she says. "We need 
more data." But in its first comprehensive survey of dioxin, the agency 
last year found that fish caught near Tokyo and Osaka were badly contaminated 
with the substance. Studies have determined that daily dioxin intake exceeds 
the new standards in communities where people tend to eat fish caught 
in polluted coastal waters. "Only the high percentage of seafood coming 
from outside the country is keeping the levels of dioxin in Japanese from 
soaring," says dioxin expert Miyata.

One warning was sounded last October, when scientists from the U.S., Britain 
and Japan conducted a survey of meat labeled "whale" on sale in Japan. 
dna tests showed that more than a quarter of the meat was actually dolphin 
and other species caught in coastal waters, much of it heavily contaminated 
with mercury, pesticides and poly-chlorinated biphenyls (pcb), a dioxin-like 
compound. One dolphin liver labeled as whale had a mercury level hundreds 
of times that of Japan's post-Minamata limit. In a letter to government 
ministries in Tokyo, one of the researchers, Harvard biologist Stephen 
Palumbi, took the unusual step of calling for public warnings and an
ban on sales of contaminated meat. Says Palumbi: "The whale meat market 
was peppered with products that simply weren't safe." He has received 
no reply. 

Saito and her neighbors in Suginami are still waiting for answers as well. 
She says she feels like a guinea pig in some kind of toxic chemical
gone wrong. Now that doctors and scientists have started to get involved 
in the debate, it is harder for ordinary residents like Saito to make 
their voices heard. All the talk about data and chemical analysis, she 
says, is missing the point: "We should stop that incinerator. Then we 
should find out what is the real cause of our problems." That should be 
something everyone can agree on. 

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