Japan to discuss strengthening ways to combat PFAS pollution

The central government will discuss strengthening measures against cancer-causing organic fluorine compounds that have been detected around factories and U.S. military bases.

It will consider boosting water quality management standards and begin a health impact assessment on food.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) repel water and oil and have been used in various products.

Since about 20 years ago, however, they have been referred to as carcinogens in the United States.

Restrictions on PFAS have been tightened overseas as well.

PFAS have been so widely used in the world, however, that they are still found in soil and underground water.

In 2021, the Japanese government banned the manufacturing and use of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), which are typical PFAS and are often found in products such as paint and non-stick cookware coating.

In fiscal 2021, however, PFOS exceeding the target value were found in 81 locations in 13 prefectures.

In Okinawa Prefecture, for example, a high concentration of PFOS were detected in the area near U.S. Kadena Air Base and U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

The Okinawa prefectural government has asked the U.S. side to allow officials to enter the bases to conduct an on-site investigation.

“How seriously the U.S. military takes countermeasures is important,” said an Environment Ministry official.

The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement has been a barrier in some of the cases.

Under the agreement, the U.S. military is obliged to respect Japanese laws or ordinances.

If it is translated into domestic law, it means the Japanese government can urge the U.S. side to act.

Strengthening PFAS measures would push contamination regulation for areas around the U.S. bases forward as well.

High concentrations of PFOS were also detected in 2022 at an effluent treatment facility at U.S. Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture.

PFOS and PFOA exceeding the target value have been detected in underground water and well water in the Tama region, western Tokyo, as well as Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, Osaka and Oita.

Factories, airports and U.S. bases are believed to be the source of the contamination.

They do not easily decompose in nature, giving them the nickname “forever chemicals.”

In 2020, the government set a temporary target value of 50 nanograms per liter of water for PFOS and PFOA, combined, for the substances to not negatively impact one’s health when drinking 2 liters of water every day.

However, there is not enough scientific knowledge regarding the harmful effects of the substances, meaning the value is not a basis for any legally binding restrictions.

A joint meeting of the Environment Ministry and the health ministry began in January that will discuss the issue, using recent scientific knowledge and international trends as a reference.

Upgrading the value to an environmental standard is an option.

If a standard is set, the government can use that to regulate businesses discharging water under the Water Pollution Prevention Law.

The Food Safety Commission will research the health effects of PFAS contained in food. It will then conduct a toxic assessment in fiscal 2023.

However, there is insufficient scientific knowledge about the health effects of PFAS, making the discussion “difficult,” an Environment Ministry official said.

(This article was written by Shinichi Sekine and Ayako Suzuki.)

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