US Air Force’s Kadena base in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture is reportedly contaminating the island’s drinking water, used by almost half a million people.
The base, home to over 20,000 US and Japanese employees, allegedly uses per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a chemical linked to cancers of the kidneys and testicles, high cholesterol, and decreased vaccine response, according to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease.
PFAS, which is highly resistant to heat, oil, and water, is mainly used in the production of food wrapping, nonstick cookware, and military firefighting foams, the Diplomat said.
The presence of PFAS in the island’s water was first noticed in 2016 when the Okinawa Prefectural Enterprise Bureau announced that the chemical’s presence is higher in drinking water that comes from a river flowing along the Kadena base, the largest US Air Force installation in the Pacific.
Between February 2014 and November 2015, the bureau detected a maximum of 80 nanograms (30 nanograms on average) PFAS in a liter of tap water, which was 1.5 to 10 times higher than the maximum limit of the chemical acceptable in that amount of water, as per the Japanese government, the Okinawa Times reported.
Contamination of PFAS
Last year in April, a team of Kyoto University researchers found that the amount of PFAS in the blood of residents of three cities in the prefecture was four times higher than that of an average Japanese, the Ryūkyū Shimpō newspaper reported.
The study also found that people in the prefecture were suffering from liver-related problems and high cholesterol levels.
The paper further wrote that the researchers also detected a higher level of perfluorohexane sulfonic acid, whose regulation is being discussed in the country and could be banned by 2021.
While the Department of Defense takes the matter of contamination in the US seriously, consults with the local communities, and provides them with alternative sources of water, in the case of Japan, no such initiatives have been seen, the Diplomat noted.
In fact, last year, a US Army official reportedly refused to accept that American military installations are necessarily the source of the PFOS and PFOA pollution in Okinawa.
“It would be inappropriate to speculate where the presence of PFOS and PFOA in off base waterways originated,” US Air Force spokesman Marine Capt. Michael Hopkins wrote to Stars and Stripes in January 2019.
The paper further wrote that although the Okinawan officials believe the pollution is coming from Kadena Air Base, they cannot be sure because they don’t have access to the facility.
Status of Forces Agreement
Between 2001 and 2015, Kadena Air Base mistakenly released at least 23,000 liters of various firefighting foams, the Asia-Pacific Journal reported based on internal reports obtained through the US Freedom of Information Act.
The opacity of the US Air Force in dealing with the issue and their continuous stonewalling of any attempt to inspect the airbase stems from the Status of Forces Agreement the US signed with Japan. The agreement outlines how the US military operates in Japan, including who can and cannot enter its defense installations.
According to the six-decade-old agreement, Japanese officials are not allowed to enter American defense installations in Japan.
When it comes to environmental compliance the US military is allowed to police itself, and its bases are not subject to Japanese laws, the Diplomat writes, citing the 1960 agreement
In April this year, though, an exception was made when the Japanese officials were allowed to inspect the base when a barbecue party held by marines at Futenma Air Station triggered a hangar’s sprinkler system, causing 140,000 liters of PFAS firefighting foam and water to spill off the base.