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(Fwd) Chlorine News 11/20
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361 NEWS & ANALYSIS
Copyright 1997 Asahi News Service
Asahi News Service
November 20, 1997, Thursday
LENGTH: 2593 words
HEADLINE: AWAKENING TO NIGHTMARE OF DIOXIN
BYLINE: SHIGEJI KITAJIMA
The town of Sugito is a bedroom community with a population
of 40,000 in eastern Saitama Prefecture. For years, Sugito was
seen as a successful showcase of a municipal drive to reduce
Ever since the municipality began charging a garbage
collection fee in 1977, the residents have been burning most of
their own trash in home incinerator drums recommended by the
town. As a result, the annual per-capita garbage output handled
by the town has dropped to 110 kilograms, which is about half of
the prefectural average.
But now, the success story has turned into a nightmare. All
that home garbage-burning has been yielding toxicants of the
dreaded dioxin family.
Dubbed ''the most lethal man-made poison,'' dioxin is any of
a family of polychlorinated dibenzo-para-dioxins (PCDDs). The
most toxic among them is the compound 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo
dioxin, or TCDD for short.
''Toxicity experiments on animals show that TCDD is 1,000
times more lethal than potassium cyanide,'' noted Masatoshi
Morita, a senior researcher at the National Institute for
''According to some researchers, 12 kilograms of TCDD is all
that's needed to wipe out the entire Japanese population,''
Morita pointed out.
''As for the effects of dioxin on human health, there are
still a lot of unknowns because of insufficient research data
around the world,'' Morita said. ''But generally speaking,
dioxin is known to cause cancer, birth defects and breakdown of
the immune system.''
The first case of dioxin
pollution in Japan was reported in November 1983, when a team
of Aichi University researchers detected a high concentration of
this substance in fly ash from a municipal garbage incinerator.
Dioxins are generated in the process of manufacturing organic
chloride fertilizers and pesticides, but about 80 percent of
dioxin pollution is said to be caused by waste disposal
facilities that burn vinyl chlorides and other plastics
Dioxin in stack effluent is released into the atmosphere to
contaminate the rivers and soil. And because dioxin compounds do
not break down easily, they eventually find their way into the
food chain in fish, crops and other produce.
''In Japan, about 15 kilograms of dioxins are released into
the atmosphere from garbage incinerators every year,'' noted
Hideaki Miyata, a Setsunan University professor. ''That's about
one-tenth the total amount sprayed by the U.S. military in the
form of the defoliant Agent Orange during the 1960s and early
'70s in Vietnam.''
Atsuya Nagayama, an assistant professor at Kyushu University,
said, ''What worries me most about this situation is what it
could do or has already done to fetuses and newborn babies.''
Dioxin is lipophilic, which means that
when it is assimilated into the human body, the heaviest
deposits are to be found in body fat, or in the case of
lactating women, in their milk.
To study the effects of dioxin in mother's milk on infants,
Nagayama checked the dioxin level in 15 women who had given
birth two to three weeks before, and then tested the levels of
thyroid hormone and suppressor T cells in their babies after
they had been breast-fed for a year.
Nagayama found that babies whose mothers had high dioxin
contents in their milk tended to have lower-than-average levels
of thyroid hormone and suppressor T cell. The latter regulate
the immune response to infantile eczema, a type of atopic
''My study findings alone do not point to any conclusive
evidence of health damage being done to babies by dioxin in
mother's milk,'' Nakayama admitted.
''But given the undisputed toxicity of dioxin, we shouldn't
be taking any chances. There is no question that steps must be
taken to eliminate causes of dioxin pollution. ''
An environmentalist group
in the aforementioned town of Sugito points out some disturbing
The group recently examined the mortality rate of newborn
babies of up to one week old in every municipality within the
prefecture. The study was based on Health and Welfare Ministry
demographic survey figures from 1989 through 1994.
The group found that Sugito's newborn mortality rate for
those years averaged 3.49 for every 1,000 residents the second
highest in the prefecture and nearly double the prefectural
''All other high-mortality-rate municipalities, including the
top-ranked Miyoshi at 3.55 per 1,000, have a number of
industrial waste incinerators where high levels of dioxin have
been detected,'' noted Michiro Tanahashi, a member of the
''But that doesn't apply to Sugito, which is what really
bothers me,'' he continued. ''For lack of any better
explanation, you have to conclude that 20 years of home garbage-
burning has caused a widespread dioxin pollution that's
obviously not safe for babies.''
Soichi Ota, a lecturer at
Setsunan University's pharmacology department, said there was no
ground for establishing any direct correlation between the home
garbage-burning and Sugito's high infant mortality rate.
''But you can't absolutely and completely refute all
correlation, either,'' he conceded.
''The mortality rate per se doesn't really prove anything,''
noted Kenichi Arai, a municipal environment official. ''However,
to allay the residents' anxiety, we are going to check the
dioxin level in the atmosphere, soil and well water.''
Last March, the town completed a modern waste disposal plant
with an incinerator designed to operate 16 hours a day to burn
84 tons of trash. However, the incinerator is at work only eight
hours a day, as only 24 tons of household garbage are being
collected per day for a fee.
''Obviously, a lot of people are still burning their own
garbage at home to avoid paying the collection fee,'' said
Yoshihiro Kimura, a leader of a local group calling for a free
municipal garbage collection service.
''We aren't complaining
about having to pay for garbage pickup,'' he explained. ''All we
are saying is that the town should rethink its current garbage
policy, considering the environmental problems that have
resulted from it.''
In the city of Tokorozawa on the prefecture's southern
border, Toshimichi Yabe is studying the effects of dioxin on
An environmental activist, Yabe started suspecting some years
back that dioxin from the city's many industrial waste
incinerators could be responsible for what he thought was a high
incidence of asthma and atopic eczema among local youngsters.
A study of cases of these conditions, reported by primary and
junior high schools in Tokorozawa between 1988 and 1994, showed
that the incidence in the city was considerably higher than
anywhere else in the prefecture.
With asthma, Yabe found, Tokorozawa primary school children
were four to five times more prone to this ailment, and junior
high school pupils three to four times more prone, than the
highest prefectural average in any given year.
For atopic eczema, the
corresponding figures were three to eight times for primary
school children and three to four times for junior high school
''What struck me most was the discovery that almost all
schools that reported especially high incidences of these
ailments are located downwind of a 50-square-kilometer zone
where as many as 50 waste incinerators are in operation,'' Yabe
''Given the absence of any notable variation in diet,
lifestyle or immediate living environment from community to
community, you naturally suspect air pollution as a rather
obvious cause of this 'asthma/atopic eczema cluster.'''
An estimated 60 to 180 grams of dioxins are believed to be
generated per year from the 50-square-kilometer zone, enough to
kill 1.2 million to 3.6 million people if they are directly
exposed, according to an expert.
The Health and Welfare Ministry sets the ''humanly safe''
dioxin level at ''10 picograms per one kilogram of body
weight.'' One picogram equals one-trillionth of a gram.
A new air pollution control law enters into effect in Japan
next month, in tandem with a revised law on waste disposal.
Together, these laws will
regulate 12,000 garbage incinerators around the nation.
However, for older incinerators that fall way short of the
new dioxin emission standards, their operators are being given
a five-year grace period to clean up their act.
During that moratorium, the maximum permissible emission
level is 80 nanograms of dioxin per cubic meter of stack
effluent 800 times higher than in Germany, where any incinerator
emitting more than 0.1 nanogram of dioxin per cubic meter of
stack effluent is shut down at once.
''Compared to Europe and America, Japan is generally far too
lax in its dioxin control standards,'' lamented Toshikazu
Fujiwara, a leader of a citizens network to combat dioxin
[Entered Greenbase November 20, 1997 ]
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