ASIA PACIFIC JOURNAL: Chemical Contamination, Cleanup and Longterm Consequences of Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami
AUTHORS: Winifred A. Bird and Elizabeth Grossman
Writers Winifred A. Bird and Elizabeth Grossman followed the unfolding Tokohu disaster from their respective offices in Nagano, Japan, and Portland, Oregon. To form a picture of the damage, begin to understand how chemical contaminants and their potential health hazards are being handled after the tsunami, and assess their longterm effects, Bird visited the hard-hit prefectures of Ibaraki, Iwate, and Miyagi, while Grossman researched company and chemical information and how such issues are handled in the United States. While Japanese and international attention has focused on radiation danger associated with the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, chemical contamination also promises to significantly impact the region and its ability to recover.
"Data available through Japan’s Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR),22 comparable to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, give a more complete picture of what chemicals with potential environmental and health hazards may have been present at facilities in heavily impacted locations. In the weeks following the Tohoku disaster, Toxic Watch Network, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization, combed the PRTR data to get a general idea of the chemicals that may have been onsite at affected facilities. The resulting list includes acrylamide, asbestos, benzene, bisphenol A, bromomethane (methyl bromide), cadmium, chromium compounds, chloroform, chlorodifluoromethane, ethylene glycol, dioxins, formaldehyde, lead, mercury, toluene, and xylene (see map).23 Many of these compounds are respiratory hazards, neurotoxicants, and/or carcinogens. Many are potentially acutely toxic. Some are also environmentally persistent, which raises potential issues of long-term contamination, particularly to local soil and water.
The numerous gas and oil fires that followed the earthquake would also have released hazardous pollutants, both chemical and particulate. In addition, debris that may have included plastics, wires, vinyl products, and insulation has been burned in large, open-air piles in the town of Minamisanrikucho, Miyagi Prefecture,24 and possibly at other locations. Such fires have great potential to emit additional hazardous contaminants such as dioxins. These known human carcinogens result from incomplete burning of PVC, which is used extensively in wiring, construction materials, and numerous other consumer, industrial, and infrastructure applications. Dioxins can also be produced by burning seawater-soaked wood