Less than three years after arriving in Japan, I developed an endocrine problem which caused my health to deteriorate. Through the years, I’ve had friends and acquaintances who have developed serious health problems, many of whom have died from cancer. I wondered why.

What was causing all the cancer? Is it in the green tea that most Japanese drink everyday? Is it in the fish they like to eat raw or cooked in some sugar and soy mixture? Is it in the air we breathe here? Is it in the water? I discovered the answer, and it appears to be all of the above — and more.

The carcinogenic substance that finds its way into the air, the drinking water, and the agricultural soil is dioxin, a toxin which is one of the end result of burning plastics and industrial wastes. One gram of dioxin is enough to kill an estimated 10,000 people, and the Japanese government has estimated yearly dioxin emission at a very conservative 5.3 kg (1998).

Japan has the highest dioxin emission in the world, and 90% of Japan’s dioxin emissions are generated from incinerators. About 70% of the world’s number of incinerators are concentrated in Japan. Tall incinerator towers dot cities here, and depending how the wind blows, dioxin is carried in the air to pollute these cities. In a test done on mothers living down-wind of an incinerator, some have been advised to reduce breast-feeding.

Dioxin finds its way into agricultural soil through agrochemical and herbicide use; and eventually, in the vegetables we eat here. In 1999, dioxin-tainted vegetables were discovered. Aside from vegetables, fish from Tokyo Bay were found to contain unusually high levels of dioxin, a result of these agrochemicals. Aside from causing cancer, dioxin is an endocrine inhibitor which alters the functions of hormones.

But there are also other sources of toxic contamination. Japan has limited natural resources, and the Japanese have resorted to recycling household water by chemically treating it in order to make it potable again. Many years ago, I was watching the News on television and they showed some politicians drinking water recycled from the toilets, telling the public that it was safe to drink. What are those chemicals and to what extent can these be detrimental to our heath? Some of my visiting friends from abroad have remarked that the tap water tastes like chlorine.

Many public baths still use wood to heat the bathing water. The wood used are chemically treated, and one such chemical is arsenic. There is a public bath near my house, and depending how the wind blows, the nauseating smoke coming from their chimney enters through the windows of my house. Just breathing this invisible smoke induces vomiting.

Another cultural tradition is the Japanese penchant for packaging that is pleasing to the eye. The amount of paper, plastic and cardboard wastage that goes into packaging a gift is huge. The Japanese are so very fond of gift-giving, so much so they have two seasonal gift-giving traditional times, one in August and the other at the end of the year. And that’s aside from the many other occasions which requires a gift. A Japanese female friend of mine said that she had to purchase 50 boxes of chocolates, an “obligatory gift” in her company to male employees on Valentine’s day.

Benzene and nitrogen dioxide emissions from auto-mobiles are other air pollutants worth mentioning. The pollution situation still falls short of environmental standards, and it doesn’t help that the Japanese have a nasty habit of letting their cars run idle, often for long periods of time.

I’m sure the Japanese government is doing what it can to reduce the toxic pollution, and who am I to say what they should or should not do. Seemingly obvious solutions like a culture re-think: the over-packaging for a start, or the use of other means than burning wood to heat baths, if public baths are really that necessary. Re-usable chopsticks, instead of the wooden disposable type would go a very long way to conserve trees and obviously reduce the amount of incinerated garbage. But what stands out as an apparent remedy that perhaps has more to it than meets my simple eye (like logistics), is to re-locate the incinerators outside of cities.

But we shouldn’t leave it only to the government to find solutions. We have a very major role to play in reducing the carcinogens in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Sort your household garbage, and make sure plastics are not included in the “burnable” bin. Use canvas bags or any bag which you can re-use to carry your groceries. Find ways to contribute to reducing wastage and controlling pollution. The life you save may be your own.

Cancer is the major cause of death in Japan, but it is a subject of discussion considered taboo among the Japanese. I had asked my doctor what caused my endocrine system to go haywire, and he replied “I don’t know.” If they could just change another culture-think, examine the implications of being labelled the “Dioxin Capital of the World,” then they would know the root cause of cancer in Japan.

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References:
Dioxin Levels High in Incinerator-Happy Japan
Dioxin Found Deadly for Sure
In Japan’s Burnt Trash, Dioxin Threat
Tokyo Metropolis: No Time to Waste
Air Pollution Not Improving

See also:
Presentations at International Conferences
(see articles by Shigeki Masunaga on his research on dioxin pollution in Japan)
Low Carbon Economy

The Washington Post: Japan Staunches Stench of Mass Trash Incinerators