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Waste Not #386

The Reporter for Rational Resource Management
April 1997

In Japan's Burnt Trash, Dioxin Threat
The New York Times, April 27, 1997, page 10

Copyright 1997 by the New York Times Co. Reprinted by Permission.

TOKOROZAWA, Japan -- Eiko Kotani has long been annoyed about the 20 or so industrial waste incinerators that have sprung up over the last decade in the once pristine forest outside her front door. She has installed air purifiers in all the rooms of her house and shakes the soot off the laundry she has hung out to dry.

But now Mrs. Kotani, the mother of four, has a new fear. Michio Tanahashi, a geophysicist who lives in this area just outside Tokyo, has discovered that the death rate for infants in towns just downwind of the incinerators is 40 percent to 70 percent higher than the average for the prefecture.

Although the conclusions have not been verified by professional epidemiologists, the findings have set off a fear of dioxin, a hazardous chemical found in incinerator smoke. Ten mothers agreed to an offer from a television news program to have their breast milk tested for dioxin, and the two women with the highest levels have been advised to reduce breast feeding by half.

Concern about dioxin is growing in Japan, which has suffered some of the world's most horrifying industrial pollution episodes. The dioxin family of chemicals is suspected of causing cancer, skin diseases and reproductive problems; it is considered harmful even in minute quantities.

The major source of dioxin in most countries is the incineration of garbage, particularly plastics and other materials containing chlorine. And Japan, a crowded country with little room to bury garbage, burns an extremely large amount of it.

There are more than 1,850 municipal waste incinerators in Japan, compared with about 150 in the United States and 50 in Germany. Japan also has more than 3,300 privately owned industrial incinerators.

Japan burns about three-quarters of its municipal waste. In the United States and Germany, most garbage ends up in landfills. Public trash cans in Japan usually have separate slots for the burnable garbage (food waste, for instance) and the non-burnable (cans and glass bottles), and households separate the two.

The side effects of the reliance on incinerators are now being seen. The concentration of dioxin in the air in Japan is about three times that in the United States and some European countries, according to Masakatsu Hiraoka, a professor emeritus at Kyoto University who has headed government advisory committees on dioxin.

The airborne dioxin eventually makes its way into the food chain, concentrating especially in fish, a favorite food of the Japanese.

The Japanese Government's estimates suggest that the amount of dioxin ingested by residents is somewhat higher than in other developed nations, though still generally within levels it regards as safe. Data from the World Health Organization show that the level of dioxin in breast milk, where it tends to concentrate in the body, is not higher in Japan than in other advanced nations.

Critics say Japan has been well behind other countries in regulating dioxin levels. Mrs. Kotani recalled that when she complained, officials "said they had to worry about the livelihood of the industrial waste incinerators."

The dioxin issue is part of a broader problem in Japan about where to dispose of 50 million metric tons of household waste and 400 million tons of industrial waste each year. One opponent of dumps estimates that there are 400 disputes in Japan about proposed or existing landfills or incinerators.

Last October in the town of Mitake, in central Japan, Mayor Yoshiro Yanagawa was severely beaten, suffering a cracked skull, a broken arm and three cracked ribs. Although his two assailants were never caught, the Mayor has suggested that they were retaliating for his opposition to a proposed industrial waste dump.

In Tokyo's Suginami Ward, more than 80 residents living near a year-old waste relay station have complained of difficulty breathing and numbness in limbs, and a few have been hospitalized. The Tokyo Government insists that there is no obvious link between the relay station and what has become known as "Suginami disease."

During its high growth phase in the 1960's, Japan experienced the Minamata Bay mercury poisoning and other public health crises caused by pollution. One involved cooking oil contaminated with two substances closely related to dioxin: polychlorinated biphenyls and furans.

People in western Japan who consumed the oil, produced by Kanemi Soko Company, developed a severe skin condition called chloracne, as well as cardiovascular and nervous disorders. More than 1,800 victims were officially recognized by the Government, and more than 100 are believed to have died.

Experts do not expect such serious effects from the incinerator emissions of dioxin, but evidence of health disorders is accumulating.

Dr. Junya Nagayama, associate professor of environmental health science at Kyushu University, has found that babies exposed to higher concentrations of dioxin in breast milk tend to have lower levels of thyroid hormones, which animal studies suggest play an important role in learning.

Many Japanese infants and children have also developed atopic dermatitis, an itchy skin rash. Hideaki Miyata, a professor of food sanitation at Setsunan University in Osaka, said breast-fed babies were more likely to develop the rash than those fed with formula, a sign that dioxin might be a cause.

In Shintone and Ryugasaki, adjacent farming communities near Tokyo, residents opposed to an incinerator say that among those living close to it, 40 percent to 50 percent of deaths over 10 years were from cancer, compared with 20 percent for people living farther away.

"One after another, neighbors were dying of cancer," said Noboru Noguchi, a 66-year-old farmer, displaying a hand-drawn map on which each home that had experienced a cancer death was filled in with black. The map looked like a checkerboard. Mr. Noguchi, who said he had quit smoking more than 20 years ago, was found to have lung cancer two years ago and had to stop farming.

The surveys, done by word of mouth, would not be considered scientifically valid, and the Ryugasaki government says its own research, based on official death certificates, shows no unusual rate of cancer deaths. Japanese figures show that over all, 30 percent of deaths in 1996 were caused by cancer. Still, some people in the two towns are now having their blood tested for dioxin.

In January the Ministry of Health and Welfare, reacting to pressure from citizens and the news media, toughened the guidelines it first set in 1990 for dioxin emissions from municipal incinerators. Of 1,150 incinerators checked so far, 72 will be recommended for closure if they cannot cut emissions. But the guide-lines do not have the force of law and do not cover industrial incinerators.

Meanwhile, last month, Tokorozawa became the first municipality in Japan to enact a dioxin ordinance, though a weak one.

And last year, the Health Ministry established a daily tolerable intake level for dioxin, saying people should consume no more than 10 trillionths of a gram of dioxin per kilogram of body weight. This is the same level set by many other countries and the World Health Organization, though it is much higher than the 0.01 trillionths of a gram proposed for the United States.

Japan's Environment Agency, however, recommends that people consume no more than 5 trillionths of a gram per kilogram. The agency estimates that most people in Japan consume from 0.3 to 3.5 trillionths of a gram per kilogram per day, well below either limit. But those who live near incinerators or eat large amounts of fish ingest 1.8 to 5.3 trillionths of a gram, skirting the undesirable zone, it said.

Experts say that although the technology exists to remove most dioxin from incinerator smoke, upgrading all Japan's incinerators will take time and money. One problem is the many smaller, older incinerators, in which incomplete combustion releases more dioxin.

Ultimately, some experts say, Japan will have to reduce its output of garbage, either by recycling more or cutting consumption.

Each Japanese person generates 2.4 pounds of household waste each day, only half the amount generated by Americans and roughly equal to output in West European countries. But there is room for reduction. Even trivial gifts are elaborately wrapped. Houses are torn down and rebuilt every 30 years or so.

"Complaining about our waste is like complaining about ourselves," said Mr. Noguchi. "I feel half angry and half guilty."


In the 1980's Japan was showcased as the model for how to run trash incinerators in the U.S.

In the mid-1980's, America was awash with comments on how Japan should be a model for handling municipal waste in the U.S. Commentators were impressed, as we all were, with the high recycling rates the Japanese were achieving, which were said to be somewhere between 30 and 50 percent. Incinerator opponents and proponents were told that Japan should be looked to as a model for operating trash incinerators. The following comments by Allen Hershkowitz are illustrative of what Americans were told:

“After conducting a two-year study of trash burning plants in Norway, Sweden, West Germany, Switzerland, and Japan, I am convinced that these technologies [incinerators] can be highly efficient in reducing emissions if the waste is properly prepared and pollution-control devices are run by highly skilled workers.... Employees at resource-recovery plants in West Germany, Japan, and Switzerland are thoroughly trained. Japanese workers spend 6 to 18 months learning how toxic chemicals are stabilized in the furnace and captured in the stack, and they must have an engineering degree and undergo on-site training.... Americans have much to learn from their overseas counterparts about handling solid waste without undue risk to human health.” (“Burning Trash: How It Could Work,” by Allen Hershkowitz, Technology Review, July 1987, pp 26-34. --Hershkowitz, at this time, worked with INFORM in N.Y.)

“Basically the facilities that burn garbage in the U.S. are classic industrial giants. They are filthy, they're noisy and to some extent they're smelly. They're not the kind of facilities that we see in Japan where they are literally clean enough to take third grade school children through them. In fact, visiting garbage burning facilities in Japan you have to take your shoes off and put on slippers and put on white gloves so that you don't get the facilities dirty.... These technologies can achieve their optimal removal efficiencies for all the pollutants of concern only under very precise operating protocol. Unfortunately... the kind of workers training required to operate the facility at those levels of efficiency doesn't exist in the United States.” (“Waste Not, Want Not” - part of the PBS-TV series “Race to Save the Planet” that aired in 1990.)

A little background on Japan

Notes from EC: A student from Canton, N.Y. had the opportunity to attend high school in Japan for one year in 1990. On her return she told me that a trash incinerator was located next to the school. She said that when the wind was blowing in a particular direction, the students had to shut the windows to stop the `dark and foul smelling' emissions from entering the classrooms.

One of the best and most memorable books that I've read on environmental issues is Industrial Pollution in Japan edited by Professor Jun Ui. This book does not discuss incineration or municipal waste, but details four catastrophic poisoning incidents in Japan: The Ashio Copper Mine; the Arsenic Milk Poisoning of powdered milk; Minamata Disease; and the Miike Coal-mine Explosion. This book documents the roles of the polluter, the government, and the victims, with fine writing, in-depth history, political perspective, coupled with astute commentary. According to Professor Jun Ui:

“On the international level, Japan's pollution regulations and technological finesse are highly overrated, while the contributions made toward environmental viability by the activities of the citizens' movements enjoy almost no publicity. This is because the government's public information sector is able to circulate its own propaganda so as to generate the impression that the government is the author of all measures taken to protect the human environment. In this regard, the information provided by the Japanese government is highly technical without any significant references to historical and social factors.... Ignoring these situations, the government makes exaggerated propaganda claims as to the effectiveness of its technology, and in the process shifts public attention away from real problems. Ever since the government called the Ashio copper-mine problem one of hydrological control, the rulers of the nation have been using similar, sleight-of-hand methods to mislead the public. If pollution problems are understood within a historical perspective, these tricks of evasion can be shown up for what they are. The people of Japan believe that problems of environmental destruction can be solved on the basis of a so-called almighty science and technology, without reference to the sensitivities of nature. The government administration and industrial capitalists have used their propaganda to create an illusion whereby the people are led to believe that all the problems of the environment have been solved.... Policies dedicated to pollution control are not be taken literally - they should be seen, rather, as window dressing, an attempt to gloss over an ugly situation....” (Industrial Pollution in Japan, edited by Jun Ui. United Nations University Press, Tokyo, Japan, 1992, pp 179-180, ISBN 92-808-0548-7. Jun Ui is a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Okinawa.)

WASTE NOT # 362. A publication of Work on Waste USA, published 48 times a year. Annual rates are: Groups & Non-Profits $50; Students & Seniors $35; Individual $40; Consultants & For-Profits $125; Canadian $US50; Overseas $70.

Editors: Ellen & Paul Connett, 82 Judson Street, Canton, New York 13617. Tel: 315-379-9200. Fax: 315-379-0448.