Read the full article by Tomoko Otake (The Japan Times)

“Japan knows full well how certain chemicals can do harm.

The country has a long history of industrial pollution, including that which led to the Minamata disease of the 1950s and ‘60s. In that dark chapter in the nation’s history, thousands of people in and around Kumamoto and Niigata prefectures suffered from severe neurological symptoms after eating fish and shellfish, not knowing that they were laced with methylmercury released into the ocean and rivers by the regions’ chemical plants…

…In compliance with an international treaty, the Environment Ministry banned the manufacturing and use of two major PFAS chemicals — PFOS in 2010 and PFOA in 2021 — and is currently moving toward banning perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), another substance cited as being potentially harmful. In 2020, the government also set a safety limit for drinking water for the first time, though it is ‘provisional’ and not legally binding.

Then in January, the government launched two expert panels — one to review the provisional limit in drinking water and the other to draw up the overall strategy on countermeasures. The strategy panel is expected to come up with a report by this summer.

But residents in areas where elevated levels of PFAS have been detected are demanding more answers. They are worried about the effects of substances that may have accumulated in their body over the years, and have started having their blood tested independently to check if these forever chemicals have snuck their way into their bloodstreams.

Safety limits

The health risks posed by PFAS — characterized by elemental bonds of fluorine and carbon that are so strong that the chemicals don’t disintegrate — have been known for decades, but they have attracted renewed attention lately as more evidence on their toxicity has emerged.

In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed setting the limit of PFAS contamination in drinking water to 4 nanograms per liter each for PFOA and PFOS — the smallest detectable amount for both chemicals.

The agency is also eying a ‘hazard index’ for four more PFAS chemicals — GenX, PFBS, PFNA and PFHxS — based on the cumulative risks from mixtures of these chemicals.

The European Union is currently considering a proposal to ban PFAS as a whole. If the ban comes into force, companies would be given between 18 months and 12 years to introduce alternatives to the more than 10,000 chemicals affected, depending on the availability of alternatives.

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, has proposed a maximum allowable exposure of PFOS and PFOA at 100 ng/L each for drinking water.

Experts on the Japanese government panel are currently debating whether to lower the limit of 50 ng/L for the combined total of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. They are also discussing measures for other PFAS chemicals.

In Japan, the problem first came to light in January 2016, when the Okinawa Prefectural Government announced that it had detected high levels of PFOS in rivers and groundwater feeding into the Chatan water purification plant in the central area of Okinawa’s main island.

Then the following month, it emerged through internal U.S. documents obtained by journalist Jon Mitchell for The Japan Times that accidental leaks of PFOS-containing fire extinguishing foam at Kadena Air Base may be linked to the contamination of drinking water on the island. At that time, few people had heard of the chemicals in Japan, experts say.

In Okinawa, PFAS contamination has grown into a serious health and environmental concern. In April 2020, large volumes of water containing white foam leaked from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma into a river in the city of Ginowan. The amount of foam that leaked was so large that some of it was carried by the wind and seen floating in the air in a nearby residential district. Some 227,100 liters of fire-extinguishing foam containing PFOS were spilled, the Defense Ministry later said.

Checking blood

Now it’s becoming clear that the issue is not limited to Okinawa.

PFAS-containing firefighting foam has been used widely for decades at U.S. military bases in Japan and across the U.S., as well as at Self-Defense Forces bases. Residents living close to U.S. bases, SDF airports, and factories where the forever chemicals have been used or made in the past are becoming particularly worried about the issue.

According to an Environment Ministry survey of public water bodies, including groundwater and rivers, conducted in the year through March 2022, the sum of PFOS and PFOA concentrations exceeded 50 ng/L in 81 out of 1,133 test sites.

Yukio Negiyama, a 76-year-old resident of Hino, western Tokyo, says he became alarmed about PFAS after reading media reports in January 2020 that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had stopped sourcing drinking water from wells in western areas of the capital in June 2019 after detecting levels of PFOS and PFOA exceeding 35 ng/L — half of the U.S.’s intake limit — in water pumped from some of the wells of Kokubunji, Fuchu and Kunitachi. In many parts of western Tokyo, groundwater had long been used as a source of drinking water.

He also reviewed data published on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government website, which showed that the combined level of PFOS and PFOA at a few water plants in Fuchu and Kokubunji in some months in the 2010s were more than two times the national 50 ngl/L limit.

‘Officials say the water is safe now, but I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘What about the water we drank all these years?’’ he said. ‘Aren’t our bodies contaminated already?’

Negiyama, along with other concerned residents, contacted Akio Koizumi, a public health expert and professor emeritus at Kyoto University, and Koji Harada, associate professor of environmental health at the institution who had studied under him, for assistance. Last year, the residents formed a group — Tama Chiiki no PFAS Osen o Akiraka ni Suru Kai (roughly translated as the Group to Uncover Facts about PFAS Pollution in the Tama Area) — and participated in Harada’s study to check levels of PFAS in the residents’ blood.

Earlier this month, Harada and Negiyama’s group released interim results of the blood tests, which covered 551 out of 650 people tested. The residents are from 28 cities, towns and villages in western Tokyo.

Their plasma samples were analyzed for four PFAS chemicals — PFOS, PFHxS, PFOA and PFNA — with the results showing that the average level of exposure to the sum of the four chemicals was 24.2 ng/mL, while the highest was 124.5 ng/mL — with even the former level bringing health risks, according to experts.

By comparison, the average exposure detected in a 2021 pilot study by the Environment Ministry, covering 119 residents across Japan, was 8.7 ng/ml.”…