Agent Orange components, dioxins and PCBs in Okinawa: U.S. military, ‘no immediate comment’

13 Jul

In February, news of Louise Say’s 1997 thesis The Military and the Environment was published on a sister site; and some points made in Chapter 1 were subsequently summarised here.

We hope our many American readers will note this finding in Okinawa.


Excavation of the former U.S. military dump in January - uncovered barrels, some of which bore markings of the Dow Chemical Company

Excavation of the former U.S. military dump in January – uncovered barrels, some of which bore markings of the Dow Chemical Company

Under the U.S./Japan Status of Forces Agreement the military is not obliged to clean up pollution at its bases. However, growing public awareness of the problem and anger at inaction has prompted both Washington and Tokyo to address it. In late June, officials met in the U.S. for a fourth round of meetings to discuss adding environmental clauses to the agreement.

Military veterans told The Japan Times that the burial of surplus chemicals — including Agent Orange — was standard operating procedure for the U.S. military on Okinawa.

In January, 61 rusting barrels containing three components of Agent Orange, a toxic compound used widely in the Vietnam War and blamed for poisoning that has resulted in birth defects and other health problems, were unearthed.

The components were herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, and the highly toxic TCDD dioxin, according to two independent teams of experts representing Okinawa City and the Okinawa Defense Bureau. Twenty barrels also contained traces of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have been linked to cancers and can damage the nervous, immune and reproductive systems.

The Pentagon has denied Agent Orange was present on Okinawa, despite testimony from more than 250 U.S. veterans who say they were sickened by the defoliant on the island during the Vietnam War. Katsuhisa Honda, a defoliant and dioxins specialist at Ehime University, says that the results prove without doubt that defoliants were buried at the dumpsite.

Though no evidence of contamination of water or soil has been found, findings provide little comfort to some on the island. “Although the Okinawa Defense Bureau says it cannot conclude that these are defoliants, local residents’ worries haven’t been dispelled,” said Masaharu Noguni, the Mayor of neighboring Chatan Town. “There is testimony from U.S. veterans. (The bureau) should investigate the full extent of the toxic substances and remove them.”

An excavation last year unearthed more than 20 other barrels at the same site. They, too, contained high levels of dioxin — causing concerns among the parents of children who attend two on-base schools nearby. In response to their demands, Kadena officials conducted surface soil samples of the school playing fields and concluded that they posed no risk to human health.

At a town hall meeting at Kadena Air Base in January, Brig. Gen. James Hecker, the 18th Wing commander, reassured parents that he would do all he could to ensure that military families are safe. He added that the military would be more forthcoming with information. However, U.S. forces have blocked subsequent attempts under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the documents which recorded the previous use of land near where the barrels were unearthed.

The discovery of the barrels is the latest in a number of incidents that raised questions about health and safety practices:

  • In March, The Japan Times reported that Kadena base officials had kept secret a large spill of PCBs in the late 1980s.
  • In May, Air Force officials admitted that drinking fountains were dispensing water contaminated with lead, in a building used to check children for developmental problems. The poisoning had continued from 2010 to 2014 and it is unknown how many people have been affected.
  • Large caches of barrels suspected to have been defoliants were uncovered on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in 1981 and on former military land in Chatan in 2002, but the results of testing are not known.

Japanese authorities now plan to widen the area of excavation in the city of Okinawa to determine whether any barrels remain.

The U.S. military had no immediate comment. United States Forces Japan director of public affairs Lt. Col. David Honchul said commanders had not yet received the Okinawa Defense Bureau’s findings.



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