Japan's Dirty Secret

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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 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.

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 association 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 household-waste 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 safe.

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 requirement.

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 contracted 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 chestnuts. 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 Japan.

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 anymore.

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 scientist 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 Engineering 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 immediate 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 experiment 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.