Read the full article by Jon Mitchell (The Diplomat)

Host to 31 U.S. military bases, Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, is no stranger to the risks of bearing the burden of the U.S.-Japan alliance. In 1959, the U.S. military accidentally shot a nuclear rocket into a local harbor; six years later, it lost a hydrogen bomb in nearby seas; then in 1969, a leak of nerve agent on the island so shocked the world that President Richard Nixon was forced to renounce his nation’s first-use policy on chemical weapons.

But these incidents pale compared to what Okinawans are facing today: the U.S. military has polluted the drinking water for 450,000 people – a third of the prefecture’s population – in the worst case of environmental contamination in the island’s history.

The chemicals causing the problem are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (aka PFAS) which are used in the production of food wrapping, nonstick cookware and military firefighting foams. PFAS are highly resistant to heat, oil and water, but in these strengths lie their dangers. Virtually indestructible in nature, they accumulate in our bodies, taking decades to expel. According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, health problems linked to PFAS include cancers of the kidneys and testicles, high cholesterol and decreased vaccine response – a particular concern during the current pandemic.

Okinawans first realized their island was contaminated with PFAS in 2016 when tests by local authorities detected high levels of the substances in rivers running through and near Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. Air Force installation in the Pacific. The discovery prompted further checks near military facilities on the island, revealing elevated PFAS levels in spring water, fish and farmers’ fields. Most alarming, prefectural officials found PFAS in the island’s drinking water, which is sourced from rivers near Kadena Air Base and an aquifer beneath the facility. Levels peaked at 120 parts per trillion (ppt); as a comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends a maximum level of 70 ppt – but even this, say experts, is way too high.

The contaminated drinking water is supplied to seven municipalities – home to 450,000 Okinawans, thousands of U.S. service members and their families, and, at least in pre-pandemic times, millions of international tourists. Checks on residents who regularly drank the water showed that blood levels of some PFAS compounds were 53 times higher than the national average…”