Parents of the pupils who attend Futenma 2nd Elementary School in Ginowan City on the Japanese island of Okinawa could scarcely have imagined that their beloved kids spend a good part of the day on a site contaminated by toxic substances. Parents anywhere and everywhere would find such a cold and cruel fact, laid bare by a local citizen group that tested the soil in and around the school in mid-August, hard to accept. Test result of the soil, which was sampled at three locations, was published on Monday and shows a concentration of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) of 1,700 ng/kg near the drainage ditch behind the school and 1,000 ng/kg near the playground. Though the Japanese government has yet to set a safe value for PFAS in soil, the US Environmental Protection Agency sets the value at 38 ngkg.
PFAS, commonly known as the “forever chemicals”, is the collective name for a large family of highly persistent manufactured chemicals that are notoriously hard to degrade in the environment, thanks to the fact that their molecules have a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. Scientific studies have linked exposure to PFAS in the environment and the resulting accumulation in the human body to a host of diseases and harmful health effects. On 26 August 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency formally proposes to designate perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two of the most widely used types of PFAS, hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).
Between 25 June and 23 July 2022, Blood samples were collected from a total of 387 residents from six different locales on the island of Okinawa where PFAS had been previously found in drinking water. The blood sample collection was organized by Darkwater Okinawa, a citizen group dedicated to increasing public awareness of PFAS contamination. The blood samples have been tested by Assoc. Prof. Kouji Harada and his lab, with the result expected to be released at any time.
Alarms have been sounded even on the main island of Japan when a metropolitan government survey detected PFAS in wells near the Yokota Air Base in Tama Area in the western portion of Tokyo Metropolis in 2019. On 7 August 2022, local residents inaugurated “Society to Clarify the Pollution of Organic Fluorine Compounds in the Tama Area” and announced a plan to conduct large scale blood sample collection in November. It also plans to investigate the cause of the contamination to find out whether, as rumours have it, the pollutants come from the Yokota Air Base.
Okinawa accounts for a mere 0.6% of Japan’s territory but hosts 74% of US military bases in Japan by area and over half of US military personnel in Japan. The island is at a critical crossroad where the islanders must decide either to kick the can down the road by allowing the status quo to continue, or to speak in a single and determined voice against it, wherein the rights of the local population are, as a matter of course, to be trampled upon. For parents of the pupils at Futenma 2nd Elementary School, the choice couldn’t be easier to make.
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Meticulous field tests had located the widespread existence of PFAS in Okinawa’s water and soil, and even in Okinawans’ blood as early as 2016, when Prof. Akio Koizumi and Assoc. Prof. Kouji Harada of Kyoto University found abnormally high level of PFAS in blood samples of 44 residents in Oyama, Ginowan City on Okinawa Island. Subsequent studies found PFAS contamination in natural water bodies such as rivers, springs and wells, in soils and even in locally cultivated taros. The Chatan Water Treatment Facility, which supplied 450,000 Okinawans with drinking water, was also contaminated.
Okinawans have long suspected that the contamination stems from the US military bases on the island, particularly the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station and the Kadena Air Base, where firefighters have been using aqueous film- forming foam(AFFF) for decades to extinguish flammable liquid fires such as jet-fuel fires. AFFF contains so much PFOA or PFOS or both that the release of even a speck of it suffices to cause significant contamination. At both Futenma and Kadena, however, poor management and human negligence often cause leakage of tens of thousands of liters of AFFF.
The United States Forces Japan (USFJ) insists its responsibility for the contamination can neither be presumed nor proven. When the Okinawa Prefectural Government requested access to the bases to conduct on-site inspections, it refused. However, congressional hearing records and internal emails of the US military obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Jon Mitchell, an award-winning British journalist who has been investigating contamination by US military bases in Japan for years, show that the US military was aware of the high probability PFAS contamination in Okinawa resulted from firefighting training at US military bases on the island, where no pollution control measures were in place for as long as three decades.