Read the full article by Pat Elder (Military Poisons)

“When the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper first reported in July of 2022 that PFOS and PFOA were ‘likely discharged’ into the Port of Yokosuka by the U.S. Navy, the article raised serious concerns among informed readers. The Mainichi article and subsequent reporting by Japanese news agencies flirt with fact and fiction while leaving necessary and important analysis aside.

Mainichi Shimbun reported that ‘foam was found in a drainage treatment facility by the sea in the eastern part of the naval base in early May.’ This was novel reporting because the appearance of foam draining from U.S. bases has almost always been associated in the Japanese media with unchecked and sometimes massive releases of firefighting foams from overhead suppression systems in hangars or from routine training exercises at fire training areas.

The city of Yokosuka announced that ‘the foam was found in a drainage treatment facility’ and likely discharged into the Port of Yokosuka. This reporting should have raised alarm bells in the media. Why were the toxins found at a treatment facility, where did they come from, and were these releases a one-time event or the result of routine operations on base?

The article said PFOS and PFOA were detected at combined levels exceeding the ‘Japanese government-set provisional target value of 50 nanograms per liter.’

Typically, foam releases that have been analyzed by laboratories may contain as many as 20 different potentially toxic compounds. Often, the combined concentrations of these other PFAS toxins exceed the PFOS and PFOA that the U.S. military, Japanese government, and Japanese media are fixated upon. Many of these compounds are dangerous to human health and bioaccumulate in fish.

Because environmental contamination may be reported in a host of scientific measurements it is more instructive to refer to concentrations of this suite of chemicals in parts per trillion, or ppt. Also, it would be instructive to explain exactly what a ‘provisional target value’ of 50 ppt means. Is the 50 ppt a mandatory limit or not? Are there routine testing protocols and enforcement mechanisms in place? If so, which environmental media are covered and who enforces them? 

U.S. officials said the cause of the possible leaks of the substances remained unknown. 

Seriously? The U.S. military understands that everything in this realm is quantifiable.

It has been the game plan of U.S. Forces Japan to keep public discourse of PFAS contamination confined to the firefighting foams. They say they are getting rid of the chemicals in the foams that are poisoning the Japanese nation. We don’t know what they are doing, although most of the industrialized world has switched to the perfectly capable, environmentally friendly, fluorine-free foams.

The disclosure of the carcinogens at a ‘treatment facility’ is deeply problematic for U.S. Forces Japan, according to sources familiar with the mindset of the Naval command. It suggests a wider, more pervasive, and more systemic problem. The U.S. military is more willing to address the unfortunate one-time events of massive firefighting foam spills that continue to occur. Once they get rid of the carcinogenic foams, the issue in the mind of the public, in their wishful thinking, will be resolved.

The Mainichi Shimbun article contained this zinger, ‘The Yokosuka Municipal Government also urged Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi that the national government clarify whether the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka is in possession of and uses PFOS and other chemicals and provide an explanation to people affiliated with the fishing industry.’

This is explosive and suggests that someone within the Yokosuka Municipal government understands the peril facing Japan and is not restrained from addressing it. Notice the quote refers to PFOS rather than PFAS. PFOS is perfluoro octane sulfonic acid. It is one of more than 14,000 types of per-and poly fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They are all potentially threatening to human health. It’s an important matter because military and industrial users substitute equally dangerous PFAS analytes when international protocols ban specific compounds like PFOS and PFOA. The U.S. government is taking steps to regulate four additional PFAS compounds in drinking water: PFHxS, PFNA, PFBS, and HFPO-DA, commonly known as GenX chemicals.  We don’t typically hear about these chemicals in Japanese reporting.

 PFOS aggressively bioaccumulates in fish up to 2,000 times the levels in the water, meaning the filet of fish may be expected to contain 100,000 ppt of the carcinogens if the water is allowed to contain a concentration of PFOS up to 50 ppt. (50 x 2,000). Authorities say the fish are OK to eat while the drinking water ought to be under the ‘provisional target’ of 50 ppt. This doesn’t make sense. Apparently, the municipal folks in Yokosuka understand this.

Stars and Stripes added to the story about the Yokosuka contamination on July 5, 2022
when it reported that officials from the South Kanto Defense Bureau and the Navy
inspected the wastewater facility. The Navy said it found no issues with the base’s
fire extinguishing system and no additional foam has been found since the initial report. 

According to the Navy, the chemicals were found in a combined concentration of 112 ppt in one test and 57 ppt in another. These are relatively small concentrations compared to the tests performed on the discharge water at many military and industrial wastewater treatment plants in the U.S. A Navy statement said, ‘We are committed to protecting the safety and health of the community and the environment, and to determining the cause of the release.’

This statement follows the worldwide response template set by the Pentagon. The way they put it, the Navy is part of the community, these things are complicated, and they’re seriously investigating the alleged contamination.

 It’s nonsense, of course. The Navy knows exactly where the releases are coming from
and they likely have test results on many. If the command doesn’t know, they can find out by testing the liquid contaminants flowing into the industrial and residential sanitary sewer drains from thousands of locations on base. Engine cleaning and chrome plating use high volumes of PFAS. Wastewater treatment plants act like grand central stations for PFAS and a host of toxic chemicals.

Stars and Stripes reported that Yokosuka Mayor Katsuaki Kamiji wrote to Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, calling the situation ‘extremely regrettable,’ asking for the government of Japan to take preventive measures and to investigate the situation, including whether the surrounding environment had been affected. 

The Stars and Stripes piece says that studies involving human exposure to PFOA are so far inconclusive. This is off the mark. For instance, the state of California categorizes PFOA (and PFOS) as human carcinogens. To its credit, the publication redeemed itself in a November 1, 2023 article, ‘Studies involving lab animals show exposure to PFOA increases the risk of certain tumors, according to the American Cancer Society. Studies involving human exposure show an increased risk of cancer, reproductive issues, developmental issues in children and other adverse health effects, according to an EPA news release in August.

The influential paper also reported in a September 16, 2023 story that a sample from Tokyo Bay taken June 30 by the South Kanto Defense Bureau found the chemicals in combined concentrations of 3.3 parts per trillion. A sample taken further away from shore showed a concentration of 1.6 parts per trillion.  It’s especially important to know the concentration of the individual compounds because of the propensity of PFOS to bioaccumulate in aquatic life, even at miniscule levels. Furthermore, commercial labs often test for several dozen analytes in surface waters so it would be good to have those results.

Mainichi Shimbun revealed the shocking reality of the enormity of the environmental disaster when it reported  on October 4, 2022 that 8,592 ppt of PFOS and were detected in domestic wastewater discharged from the base’s treatment plant on Aug. 29, and 5,450 ppt or 109 times the target value, were detected from industrial drainage.  The PFOS levels were 172 times higher than the government’s limit of 50 ppt, while the PFOA levels were 109 times the target value. The paper reported that the source of the discharges was unknown.

The study of the ‘fate and transport’ of PFAS in surface water and aquatic life is a fascinating and important undertaking. Factors like the tide, currents, and wind may affect how and where the chemicals migrate, and of course, the fish move around. Some fish that are bottom feeders pick up a different suite of the compounds compared to others who inhabit the higher levels of the water.

Although some in Japan have dismissed findings showing more than 100,000 ppt in small fish that people don’t consume, we know many larger fish consume little fish.

We must put these shocking numbers (PFOS – 8,592 ppt, PFOA – 5,450) into some sort of context. In the U.S., the interim health advisory for PFOS in drinking water and groundwater is .02 ppt, meaning the discharge at Yokosuka is 429,600 times over the American threshold. The U.S. advisory for PFOA is .004 ppt, meaning the Yokosuka levels were 1,362,500 times higher.  Additional testing by the Navy on Sept. 29, 2022 found PFOA in concentrations of 12,900 parts per trillion in industrial wastewater.  That’s 3.2 million times over the US threshold.

It cannot be overstated that the most frightening impact on human health involves the bioaccumulation of the PFOS in fish. Even with PFOS levels in the single digits, fish may have several thousand parts per trillion of the toxins in their filet. Typically, high concentrations of PFOA are found in the sludge produced by the wastewater treatment process. This sludge may be spread on agricultural fields, poisoning crops. We don’t know what to do with it. We typically can’t burn it and we can’t bury it.

‘I can’t help but feel anger. I can no longer trust the U.S. military,’ Mayor Kamiji said, demanding that the Japanese government conduct an on-site inspection at the base.

Four weeks later, On November 1, 2022, Stars and Stripes reported the U.S. Navy had installed eight granular activated carbon filters at the Yokosuka wastewater treatment plant. This is a positive development because the filters can be expected to remove a large portion of the carcinogens from the water being discharged into the sea. However, some compounds may escape the filters while tremendous, irreversible harm has already been done. The Japanese government, media, and the public must demand the publication of regular test results of the effluent and sludge while all wastewater treatment plants throughout the country must be monitored for the toxins. 

It is critical that the ultimate destination of the saturated filters must be closely monitored. Modern science has not come up with a solution for their final disposal.  The chemicals cannot be allowed to re-enter the environment! 

Stars and Stripes repeated the claim from the Navy that it is investigating but has not yet identified the source of PFOA and PFOS on base.  

A spokesperson for the Navy reassured the community the base has removed all firefighting foam containing the chemicals.  On June 15, U.S. Forces Japan announced that extinguishing agents had been replaced with ones that do not contain PFAS at most U.S. military facilities in the country. 

On December 13, 2022 Japan Times reported, ‘A ministry official said that it was difficult to say anything concrete about any link between the high PFOS concentration levels and the U.S. base. The ministry’s reluctance may stem from Japan’s inability to conduct such an investigation without the U.S. side’s approval under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which stipulates the U.S. military’s facility management rights.’

In the U.S., private non-governmental organizations have tested surface waters flowing directly from bases proving the origins of the chemicals.

On January 31, 2023, the Asahi Shimbun reported on developments regarding PFAS contamination. They wrote, ‘In 2020, the government set a temporary target value of 50 nanograms per liter of water for PFOS and PFOA, combined, for the substances to not negatively impact one’s health when drinking 2 liters of water every day. However, there is not enough scientific knowledge regarding the harmful effects of the substances, meaning the value is not a basis for any legally binding restrictions.’

This is an indefensible and dangerous stance to take this late in the game. Japanese government and media have some serious catching up to do in reporting on PFAS contamination from U.S. military installations.”