Originally created 07/04/99

Dioxin fear spreads in Japan



TOKOROZAWA, Japan -- Eiko Kotani keeps her windows closed and runs an air purifier all day long. She washes her vegetables carefully, peels her tomatoes and avoids fatty meat, fish from the nearby bay and ice cream of any flavor.

But she still fears for the health of her family.

Kotani's home in this Tokyo suburb is surrounded by dozens of smokestacks spewing smelly, gray plumes from burned garbage -- smoke that potentially carries dangerous dioxin.

"We've been forced to breathe in this air," she said. "It's outrageous."

Pollution from dioxin -- a chemical compound linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems -- has become Japan's latest environmental obsession. Along with polluting the air, dioxins can seep into the soil and water, contaminating farm, dairy and fish products.

Though researchers are now just beginning to grasp the scope of the problem, some scientists believe dioxin pollution in Japan may be the worst in the world.

Dioxin pollution is closely linked to the burning of trash. Dioxin is often released when plastics and other wastes that contain chlorine-based chemicals are burned.

This poses a special problem for Japan, which is a country of incinerators.

Garbage here is burned at 3,840 government-approved incineration facilities, compared with fewer than 200 in the United States. Part of the reason for all the incinerators is the lack of space for landfills in the crowded island nation. Another, environmental groups say, is the failure of the government to see dioxin contamination as a problem.

Awareness got a major boost in 1997, however, when the city of Kyoto was host to a global conference on environmental issues. Japan and 37 other countries promised to cut their combined greenhouse gas emissions -- mainly carbon dioxide -- to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008 to 2012.

Pressure on the government to act has since increased, with heavy coverage of dioxin-related stories in Japanese news media.

Two recent cases have caused particular concern:

--In February, near panic resulted after a television network reported that high levels of dioxin had been found in "leafy greens" from a suburb northwest of Tokyo. Spinach prices nose-dived, and angry farmers demanded an apology. The network later said the contamination was of tea leaves.

--In March, two former employees at an incinerator in Osaka applied for workers' compensation after dioxin levels 40 times higher than normal were found in their blood fat.

Officials have generally tried to calm the public with reassurances that the contamination is not a dire threat.

At the same time, however, the government is beginning to take more serious action to curtail it.

In late March, the Cabinet announced it would tighten controls on trash burning and over the next four years reduce total dioxin emissions by about 90 percent.

In announcing the package, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi promised the "utmost effort to tackle dioxin contamination and meet the public's expectations."

The government has earmarked $690 million for monitoring and other projects for the fiscal year that began April 1 and will start conducting soil, water and air sampling as early as this summer.

Currently, the Health and Welfare Ministry sets the tolerable daily dioxin intake at 10 picograms per kilogram of body weight, or about 4.5 picograms per pound. A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram.

But the governing Liberal Democratic Party has proposed legislation to set the limit at 4 picograms per kilogram, at the upper end of the World Health Organization's recent proposed level of 1 to 4 picograms.

The government is already claiming some gains in dealing with dioxin pollution.

A tightening of standards last year prompted the closing of 2,046 incinerators. It is unclear how many of the remaining 3,840 will be forced to improve or close when the standards are further tightened in 2002, since nearly 700 have yet to comply with a government request for emissions data.

Some experts criticize the government's actions as too easy on manufacturers.

"Japan's anti-pollution measures have always been designed to protect the industry instead of the public health," said Kazuki Kumamoto, environmental policy professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.

Kumamoto said manufacturers must be made to stop producing materials and waste that cause pollution to begin with.

"The problems only get worse," he said. "And our offspring will be forced to pay the price."