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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

In Japan, a new study shows infant mortality rates up by as much as 70 percent in areas downwind from dioxin-emitting incinerators. For the first time, the government of Japan says it will set limits on dioxin emissions from incinerators. Peter Hadfield, a writer for the New Scientist Magazine, spoke to Steve Curwood from Tokyo and said that fear about dioxin has been growing steadily in Japan.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
For the first time, the government of Japan says it will set limits on dioxin emissions from incinerators. Dioxins are highly toxic chemicals found in incinerator smoke. They have been linked to a whole range of health problems including cancers, reproductive disorders, heart disease, and diabetes. The announcement came after a study found abnormally high infant mortality rates, 40 to 70% higher than normal, in a Tokyo suburb downwind from several industrial waste incinerators. Peter Hadfield writes for the New Scientist Magazine from Tokyo. He told me that fear about dioxin has been growing steadily in Japan.

HADFIELD: There's a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people who live near garbage incinerators, which are very common in this country, are being affected by dioxin. Now, citizens' groups and non-government organizations have been very concerned about this, and in fact they have produced figures which show that dioxin is very common in the air, in the sea water, and in fish.

CURWOOD: Now, this study shows a link between infant mortality rates and the smoke from these incinerators. Has dioxin been tied to other health problems with people living close to these incinerators?

HADFIELD: Yes. A lot of people are complaining about all kinds of problems: numbness, skin rashes, breathing difficulties. Of course, there's an awful lot of toxic material given out in these incinerators. They're allowed to burn quite freely even in very well built-up areas.

CURWOOD: Is there anything about the way Japan burns trash in its incinerators that may be contributing to this problem?

HADFIELD: Well, firstly, the fact that there are so many incinerators. There are nearly 2,000 municipal incinerators in Japan and several thousand more industrial ones. And therefore, the sheer quantity of incinerators means that you've got a lot of dioxin in the air. This is then working its way down into the water supply, running off to sea, and causing a build-up of dioxin in fish. The other thing is that the Japanese, some of the Japanese incinerators are very old, and they're burning the garbage at a much lower temperature than would be proper for burning off dioxin. You can get proper incinerators which do the job, and in fact can almost eliminate dioxin from the list of pollutants. But it's expensive to replace all of these incinerators that way.

CURWOOD: What sort of political pressures are there, Peter, to keep these incinerators, these old, dirty incinerators open?

HADFIELD: Well, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which regulates the incinerators, is a very powerful ministry, much more so than the environment agency. And in Japan there's this pecking order among ministries, which means it's very, very difficult for the environment agency, which is concerned about the dioxin problem, to regulate it. The other thing is, if you do regulate dioxin to the extent that you stop burning some of the plastics which are causing it, because dioxin is caused by burning plastics which contain chlorine and chlorides, then you have to figure out what to do with the waste. At the moment they're running out of landfill, and trying to cut down on the waste in Japan is a very difficult thing to do. There's a new law coming in, which is now forcing companies to recycle plastic materials. But it's a very slow process. This law doesn't really come into effect fully for another 5 years.

CURWOOD: People who are speaking up about this, I understand, are having a pretty hard time. We read about a politician who was severely beaten up because he had opposed a proposed industrial waste dump. Have you heard these studies.

HADFIELD: Yeah, oh yes, indeed. That was a very famous case. And there's been no definite link between this assault on the mayor and the waste dump. But I think that there's no doubt most people believe that obviously the 2 were connected. One of the problems is, and I must say from personal experience I know this, the people that are often involved in burning the dioxin-laden plastics are linked to the Japanese Mafia, the Yakuza. It's often a Yakuza business because there's an awful lot of money in it, and if a company wants to get rid of its waste, one way to do this is to get a Yakuza gang to arrange to have it burned illegally. And of course, because they're Yakuza, very few people stand up against them.

CURWOOD: By the way, you mentioned a personal experience. What were you referring to?

HADFIELD: Oh -- there's a dump site just actually started up 2 blocks from where I live, and some of the local people here have got very annoyed about it. There's someone who, his business is tearing down old houses, And houses here get burnt, torn down quite regularly. They don't last more than about 20 years. And when you tear them down, the house and the entire contents is usually burned, and he's just opened a space for himself and he's burning it in a piece of wasteland. And of course, the amount of toxic chemicals coming out of there and toxic smoke is quite staggering. So the citizens here are opposed to it. But on the other hand, they're very afraid of actually running up against this character because he's got Yakuza connections, and the local council won't do anything about it even though what he's doing is quite illegal.

CURWOOD: People burn up their houses every 20 years?

HADFIELD: Oh yes, it's very common. Houses are sort of rather like cars. Once you've finished with a house, you tear it down and build another one. And the consequence of that is that you normally burn the house and if it's a house that's being sold off, then the contents will go with it. And an awful lot of plastic goes up with that. You can imagine the amount of waste that comes out of that, something like 300 million tons of the waste in Japan a year is this kind of industrial waste.

CURWOOD: Peter Hadfield writes for the New Scientist Magazine. He spoke to us from Tokyo. Thank you, sir.

HADFIELD: Thank you.



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