Japan's Dirty Secret

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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 reported 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 capital.

The toxic threat is energizing Japan's environmental movement. Citizens' groups--small, underfunded but combative--are testing air and water themselves, 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 concrete-happy 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 sympathetic. 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.) Tashima's warm winds had turned deadly. Two years ago, doctors told him he too had cancer and cut out two-thirds of his stomach.

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