Eco-Lesson: Trust Your Senses

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THE ACTIVIST Eco-Lesson: Trust Your Senses By DONALD MACINTYRE Tetsuo Sekiguchi hunches over a small creek at the edge of a field in Yokkaichi, Mie prefecture, and scoops a chunk of muddy sediment off the bottom. Make sure you dig the trowel right down to where it gets hard, he advises the three farmers standing over him as he deposits the sample in a petri dish. The three men are paying rapt attention to Sekiguchi's lecture on how to gather specimens for toxin testing: a waste dump nearby has already poisoned some of their fields with cadmium and other heavy metals. Sekiguchi, 49, is one of Japan's leading experts on toxic waste. He is practically a one-man environmental movement, spending hours poking around the country's landfills, toxic-waste sites and dioxin-spewing incinerators. He has seen so many nasty sites in the past three years that, he says only half-jokingly, he can detect dioxin contamination to the picogram (trillionth of a gram) just by sniffing the air. Sekiguchi shares his techniques with locals and shows them how to monitor toxins. After the session with the farmers, he heads north to a town near Kyoto, where citizens are organizing to oppose a massive dump they fear is leaking contaminants. They unfurl maps of the surrounding area marked with their own pollution readings. Nice work, he tells them. He advises the group to trust their senses more than the numbers. When you go to a dump, look at the trees, listen to your body, he says. Are your eyes sore? Do you smell something strange? Do you feel sick? Dressed in black rubber boots and an old windbreaker, Sek-iguchi looks more like a fisherman than an expert in toxic chemistry. But his down-to-earth style is deliberate. He is critical of university professors and other self-appointed experts who talk down to locals. They don't seem to realize they live here, too he says. His light touch often helps him win the confidence of polluters and bureaucrats as well. While meeting officials in charge of the ground water near the farmers' land, for example, he gently chides them for not doing more tests and persuades them to disclose more data. Says Sekiguchi: You have to be non-confrontational with the bureaucrats, or they get frightened off. A former high-school science teacher and truck driver, Sekiguchi embarked on this mission almost by accident, after a neighbor took him to see industrial waste being dumped into a river that runs through farmland near Nagano, in central Japan. Shocked into action, Sekiguchi began snooping around the mountains that surround his home; he has since found more than 2,000 illegal dumps in his prefecture alone. But he has also discovered some dangerous enemies. Thugs once whisked his young daughter off the street and questioned her about her father's work. Other shady types have roughed him up and forced him off dump sites he was investigating. Yet the danger hasn't deterred him. Says friend C.W. Nicol, a writer and naturalist: He's a crusader. And he'll need to be. Never mind the odd toxic field, there's the whole of Japan to clean up. With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo