Pollution in Northern Tokorozawa, in the Area known as Kunugiyama

by Eiko Kotani
trans. L. Sogawa

I live in the area known as Kunugiyama, a wooded flatland where incinerators are heavily concentrated and generate a grave dioxin problem in Tokorozawa. Kunugiyama is located in the north of Tokorozawa where the city borders between Tokorozawa, Sayama, Kwagoe, and Miyoshi (A township) fit together like the pieces of an intricate jigsaw puzzle. Sixteen incinerators are concentrated within a 500 meter radius, and although at present two of them have shut down operations, they are two of the smaller incinerators in the area, and I fear that the overall rate of incineration will hardly be affected by this shut-down. It should be noted that in this area not one of the incinerators is actually built within Tokorozawa's city limits, however as Tokorozawa lies mainly downwind from Kunugiyama, it is Tokorozawa residents who suffer the most.

An environment blessed with lush foliage and clean air

My family moved to Kunugiyama 20 years ago. Even though the location was remote and inconvenient, I was taken with the rich natural environment and the fresh air of the woodland. I thought it would be a good place to raise my children. At that time there were no incinerators nearby, and our lives were saturated with the beauty of the woods. One of our neighbors moved hrer to relieve her son's asthma, exclaiming that there was nothing like fresh air, and that she could tell the difference in the air quality as soon as she reached the woods. Her son's asthma cleared up completely.
In those days, people used to forage for mushrooms and there was an abundance of wildlife including a variety of birds and small mammals. Rabbits could be seen hopping about, and the now-endangered Great Hawk made its nest in the trees. On holidays people enjoyed the woods, families hiked, students played at orienteering. The woodland was truly a place of relaxation and recreation for the citizens. Also used as a walking course for children in daycare, every morning at ten o'clock the woods resounded with children's voices.
Many people were surprized to find a large tract of wooded land just over an hour's commute from the Tokyo metropolis. Not only for residents of the area, but also for Tokyo dwellers, Kunugiyama was a precious remnant of countyside.

The environment suffers a violent change: open burning

However, nearly ten years ago, in 1991, someone started open burning in the woods only 100 meters from our house. They were burning the refuse from torn-down buildings in a large pit. According to the Gyousha,(trans. note. A gyosha refers to someone who incinerates refuse for a profit, or as part of a business, i.e. a construction company that incinerates refuse from buildings it tears down.) they were also burning large electrical appliances in the pit. The smoke from such refuse is completely different from the smoke from a campfire. There are horrible smells that you instinctively know are adverse to health. the linings of your nose and throat burn, and you feel ill. Since the burning started everyday early in the morning, the pristine morning air was lost to us, and the conditions became so bad that we could no longer even open the windows. On windless day the smoke lingers, and it is as if we once lived in heaven and were now banished to hell. Ashes wolud drift through the air, and often the area beyond our garden was littered with blackened burnt tatters. Sometimes the flames from the pit would escape into the woods, and many times we feared that our lives or property wolud be consumed by fire. We called the fire department to put out brush fires countless times. One day a truck with its load hidden by canvas passed by leaving the smell of hospital antiseptic in its wake, and the next morning, my son, who had left his window open, reported that he smelled something like burnt stew. (Kotani is referring to the probability that hospital refuse, including discarded organs, was illegally incinerated that morning. -L.S.)
From that time on, in order to protect my family, I equipped the house with air cleaners. The filters become black with soot, and the black gummy substance that adheres to the case of the machine does not come off with water. I suspect it is an oily smoke residue, as only a strong detergent will remove it. (Here Kotani is indirectly accusing the Gyousya of the illegal incineration of waste oile.-L.S.) A friend of mine in Shinagawa (center of Tokyo) uses the same type of air -cleaner. This friend smokes cigarettes and the filter turns brownish with use, but never pitch-black like mine does. There is little traffic in the woods, and I can only think that the incinerators are the source of the sooty pollution. I get chills when I think of what our lungs would look like if I hadn't equipped the house with air filters. I fear for my children's health, and to protect them even a little from the incinerator smoke, day after day goes by without opening the windows to let air into the house.

Pollution becomes worse after incinerators are erected

Even though the residents of the area let the prefectural government know that they were strictly opposed to the erection of incinerators on a lot previously used for illegal open burning, the prefetural government issued an incinerator premit to the Gyousya involved. In 1994 two incinerators were erected 100 meters from my house, and the prefectural officials explained that these incinerators would produce no smell or smoke. With the erection of the incinerators both the smell and the smoke became much worse. The area around my house was constantly enveloped in smoke, and I realized that this was no longer a safe place for humans to live. I repeatedly Faxed my protests to the prefecture, telling them that the area had been "reduced to a zone without law." As this was to no avail, and the horrible smells and the smoke were beyond enduring, I protested directly to the Gyosya operating near my house. They would set fire to the mound of refuse beside the incinerators, and a few times I had them put the fire out. I once took a photograph of their grounds when I caught them open burning in this way and the next day an official from the Prefectural Environmental Management Bureau contacted me to say that the Gyousya was furious, and that I was not to trespess on their grounds, nor was I to take photos without permission. My reaction was less anger than disgust. I could understand such a reaction if the smoke, horrible smells, and dangerous substances never left the incinerator grounds, but that is not the case, and we have a duty to protect ourselves.
I don't think it is just coincidence that my children's excema worsened after the erection of the two incinerators near my house. People living in the neighborhood began to suffer respiratory difficulties, some needing constant medical attention.

Under prefecture guidance, the woodland becomes populated with small incinerators

Despite the citizen's unrelenting protests and complaints to government officials, one incinerator after another was erected in the woods. (Now there are many Gyousha involved, and the incinerators are clustered on the borders of the three cities and one township.-L.S.) In order to let as many people know what horrible things were happening in the woods, in 1994 we began leading groups of citizens on inspection tours of Kunugiyama. Many of the participants were angered by the deplorable conditions, and were shocked to realize that even though factory emissions had come under government regulation, refuse incineration was completely unregulated. Participants standing beneath a large smokestack and coughing painfully into hankerchieves pressed to their mouths is a sight which will remain etched in my memory.
One of the tour participants was a mother who led her small doughter by the hand. When we passed near one of the incinerators, the Gyousya loosed his Dovermans. The dogs made straight for the little girl. Fortunately, she was not injured but many of the Gyousya keep vicious dogs such as Dovermans, and we often feel the threat of bodily harm. I had to call the police once when my son, on returning from school, found a Doberman at our front door.

Evidence of dioxin pollution

I became concerned that dioxins were being emitted from the incinerator smokestacks, so I invited Setsunan University professor Hideaki Miyata to take a look a Kunugiyama. Professor Miyata, surprised by the heavy concentration of industral waste incinerators and the polluted air in the woods, agreed to test for dioxins. He took samples of soil and pine needles. Professor Miyata noted a burning sensation in his respiratory passanges on entering the woods, and pointed out that such symptoms could indicate the presence of poisonous and corrosive gases such as hydrogen chloride, hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen flouride.
The results of Professor Miyata's soil tests were made public in December, 1995 and showed the presence of dioxin in this area of incinerator concentration. Tokorozawa's tribulations with dioxin had begun.
What is frightening about dioxin is that it has no color or scent, cannot be felt, and builds up in the body. I worry about the future of our children and the generations to come. Data show that as with the ingestion of food, dioxin is also absorbed into the body through inhalation of air. People living near dioxin-emitting incinerators incur a greater risk of exposure through the air. It is not rare for dioxin data of air samples taken downwind of Kunugiyama to exceed 2 pg/m3TEQ. That is over 10 times the amount found in most Western nations.
I am also concerned about dioxin exposure through soil contact and ingestion. I am terrified when I see children commuting to school in the middle of seasonal dust storms, when the sky becomes yellow with dust. Dioxin-laden ash and smoke that precipitate from the sky settle mainly on the surface of the ground, and do not penetrate deeply. These Dioxin-laden particles are then lifted and carried by strong winds. I often see piles of incinerator ash left uncovered, and wonder how much of this ash is then distributed by the wind to other places where it can do great harm.
Children love to play in the mud, and this type of play is important for their development. Mothers with children face inpossible choices when living in a poisoned environment. We can't with any confidence say, "Go out and enjoy Nature." I cannot help but worry every time I see a child playing jump rope in a cloud of dust. And my worries increase when I think of the amount of dioxin a mother transmits to her child through breast feeding. One wonders about the fate of humanity when a moter has to be worried about whether it is safe to breast-feed her child.
When the adverse effects of being raised in an unsafe environment show up in the future, who is going to take responsivility then? Do not destroy our children's future.
Investigations by citizens linked a high infant death-rate to the presence of refuse incinerators. Too many children suffer from exema and asthma. It is obvious to anyone who looks that refuse incinerators are heavily concentrated in the Tokorozawa area. It should be obvious to anyone knowing this that Tokorozawa is at risk of pollution by various incinerator emissions. The danger lights are flashing. We, as adults,must stop this pollution. We must stop it at its source. We must stop the incineration.
Do not put off making the necessary decisions by denying the existance of the problem. Do not invite the occurance of another environmental disaster.

Calling for a ban on incinerators in agricultural areas

Of all citizens in the area, the farmers suffer most from the effects of the incinerators. They are the victims of profit-seeking Gyosha who burn industrial waste adjacent to farms. The farmers suffer casualties not just to their crops, but also to their healths. Farming in the countryside should be one of the most healthful professions. But we often hear of farmers who become ill while working outdoors and breathing air which has become laden with incineration by-products. People who remain indoors with their air cleaners on can protect themselves to some extent. Not so for farmers who must work outdoors for five to six hours per day. They also have direct contact with the soil. It is agricultural workers who are at the highest risk when the air and soil are polluted by dangerous substaces. Incineration must not continue in agricultural areas.
Recently a building inspector came to view our house. He found terrible corrosion in the folds of the bellows of our air conditioner hose situated on the roof. He said he had never seen such corrosion. He asked me if I had any clue as to the source, and the only thing I could conseive of was the incinerators.
Also, the results of a 1996 enviromental assessment showed a high level of asbestos in Kunugiyama. This also requires further investigation as to the cause.
I am angry at the horrid absurdity of having lost this beautiful environment to industrial waste incineration which has been responsible for the occurance in this area of not just deadly dioxins but also carcinogens such as asbestos. My anger will not relent until the environment has been restored.
All of Japan is focused on Tokorozawa. If the conditions do not improve soon, Tokorozawa will become the shame of Saitama Prefecture. There is no excuse for treating the citizen's lives and the envioronment with such contempt. The Prefecture speaks with sugar-coated words, but its real stance is evident when you look at what is happening in Tokorozawa.
We can no longer safely endure the increasing pollution of our environment, and we will not stand for it. We demand an immediate shut-down of the incinerators.