Living near a U.S. military base in western Tokyo has turned into a source of unease for residents, driven by mounting health concerns. A recent local study has unveiled distressing findings – a significant number of these residents possess alarming levels of harmful substances in their bloodstream, often referred to as “forever chemicals.” The ramifications of these revelations have triggered apprehension among the locals, as they contemplate the potential implications of these concerning blood test results.
Last month, the government disclosed a troubling incident – leakages from foam extinguishers containing polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) took place over a decade ago at Yokota Air Base. This revelation has fueled suspicions among the local population that the incident might be linked to the abnormal results seen in their blood tests.
Yukio Negiyama, a resident of the Tama area in western Tokyo where the military facilities are situated, is among the many who are demanding transparency and answers. “Though I cannot make absolute claims, I have strong reasons to believe that the Yokota base is somehow connected to the outcomes of these blood tests,” he asserted.
PFAS, a collective term encompassing a group of synthetic chemicals including perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has garnered notoriety as “forever chemicals.” This label stems from their near-indestructible nature, giving them an enduring presence.
Possessing resistance to oil and water, coupled with heat tolerance, PFAS chemicals have been employed across diverse applications such as nonstick cookware, fire extinguishers, and semiconductor production. However, their inability to break down over time, unlike most other substances, results in their accumulation in both the environment and human bodies. Recent studies by American and European researchers have signaled a heightened risk of conditions like kidney and testicular cancers, along with elevated cholesterol levels, due to substantial exposure to PFAS chemicals.
To counteract this alarming trend, international endeavors, spearheaded by entities like the European Union, have been undertaken to restrict or prohibit the utilization and production of these chemicals. Concurrently, regulations pertaining to their management and disposal have been reinforced.
In the Japanese context, the manufacture and import of PFOS substances were universally prohibited in 2018, and the same categorization was applied to PFOA substances in 2021.
Prompted by the detection of elevated concentrations of PFOS and PFOA in water sources around the Tama area, a local civic group initiated a comprehensive blood testing program involving 650 residents across 27 municipalities in November of the previous year. The findings, disclosed in June, exposed heightened levels of PFAS in 335 individuals, with the highest concentration reaching 124.5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml).
This threshold draws from guidelines established by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, as Japan lacks an equivalent system for gauging PFAS concentration levels in the bloodstream.
Yukio Negiyama, a co-head of the Tama civil group and one of the tested residents, returned a PFAS bloodstream concentration of 17.7 ng/ml, prompting him to contemplate a visit to a doctor as a precautionary measure.
Analyzing these test results, Koji Harada, an associate professor at Kyoto University, emphasized that while the figures do not signify immediate acute risks, the likelihood of individuals developing ailments and diseases in the long run is elevated.
In July, the Tokyo metropolitan government conveyed that the Defense Ministry had acknowledged three instances of PFAS chemical leaks from foam extinguishers at Yokota base between 2010 and 2012. Subsequently, the Defense Ministry revealed that U.S. forces reported an additional four leakages at the base in 2020 and 2022. However, these incidents did not involve PFAS chemicals, unlike the preceding cases.
Official statements assert that the leakage from the extinguishers was contained within the facility, precluding the chemicals from escaping the base during any of the seven incidents.
Contrary to this, Harada contends that the PFAS chemicals in each instance likely seeped into the soil, thereby contaminating the local groundwater. He goes further to state that while there might be other major sources of pollution, the extinguisher leakages at the U.S. base undoubtedly contribute to the issue.
Harada, an expert in health and environmental sciences, suggests that routine activities at the base, such as firefighter training, could also contribute to the pollution of the surrounding area. He posits that U.S. forces began employing extinguishers containing PFAS substances in the 1960s, implying that these chemicals might have been infiltrating the underground water across the Tama region for decades.
Expanding beyond Tama, regions hosting U.S. military bases in Japan have encountered similar high concentrations of PFAS in rivers and water sources. This has prompted local governments and residents to demand thorough inspections by the central government and the transparent sharing of information. Notable locations include neighborhoods around the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa and the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo.
Addressing the issue at a recent news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno acknowledged the Yokota base PFAS leakage as an “unfortunate incident.” He underscored the necessity for the U.S. to diligently uphold safety management protocols at their military installations. Nonetheless, he refrained from elaborating on whether on-site inspections by the national government were imminent, stating that the government would “respond to local government requests.”
In addition to the central government’s slow response to the incident, locals have criticized its failure to disclose information when the leakages initially occurred. The Defense Ministry, in particular, came under scrutiny for only revealing the reports on the 2010-2012 PFAS leakage in January 2019, a significant period before the public announcement.
Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada conceded that given the heightened public concern surrounding chemicals like PFOS, swift disclosure of relevant information should have been a priority. Speaking to the importance of nurturing a trustful relationship between the operators of military facilities and local residents, Yukio Negiyama highlighted that the actions of U.S. forces do not convey an earnest effort to build such trust.
In pursuit of comprehensive coverage, the civic group overseeing this issue aims to conduct blood tests on an additional 200 residents, thereby encompassing the entire Tama area. The findings from this endeavor are anticipated to be unveiled in September, providing further insights into the concerning prevalence of “forever chemicals” and their potential long-term effects.