Polluted with PFOA

Settsu Citizens and Kyoto University Scientists Moved Osaka Prefecture / Daikin Under Pressure

2023.04.27 12:18 Nanami Nakagawa

On February 24, 2023, Osaka Prefecture finally declared that it would demand Daikin Industries to take measures.

Citizens of Settsu City, which has the highest concentration of PFOA in Japan, submitted 16,317 signatures to Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura.

On this day, Settsu citizens and Kyoto University researchers jointly held a press conference. Major media outlets that previously did not mention the company name “Daikin” also participated.

From left: Takeshi Taniguchi, secretariat of a citizen group that aims to address PFOA pollution in Settsu, Associate Professor Koji Harada of Kyoto University, and Professor Emeritus Akio Koizumi of Kyoto University

“I’m worried about the future of the children”

At 10:45 a.m., I arrived at the press room on the 4th floor of the Osaka Prefectural Office. In the press room, there were reporters and cameramen from Osaka-based TV stations such as NHK, Mainichi Broadcasting, Asahi Broadcasting, Yomiuri Television, and Kansai Television, as well as Asahi Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun. 25 people in total.

A citizen group that aims to address PFOA pollution in Settsu, consisting of citizens of Settsu organized the press conference. About an hour ago, they submitted 16,317 signatures addressed to Governor Yoshimura, and Toshiaki Kokaji, assistant manager of the Prefectural Business Office Guidance Division, responded, ”We will take appropriate measures, such as demanding Daikin Industries to take countermeasures in the future.” Takeshi Taniguchi, secretary of the citizen group, told me before the press conference, “It’s important that Osaka Prefecture said it would demand Daikin to take countermeasures.”

The press conference started with a remark from Secretary Taniguchi. Secretary Taniguchi was a former teacher at a business high school. He is usually kind-hearted and rather quiet, but on this day, perhaps because his anger welled up, his voice was tense.

Emphasis was placed on the future of children. Settsu City, Osaka Prefecture, and the national government all put the blame on each other, even if the pollution record was the highest in the country. Secretary Taniguchi explained that residents took action on their own, such as submitting a request to the principal of the elementary school and the mayor to stop the event where elementary school students eat rice harvested in the area.

“Japan’s largest pollution, the world’s largest pollution, should not be overlooked. What worries me is the future of the children who will be responsible for the future.”

Of course, not only children but also adults are feeling uneasy. While the government did not act, citizens themselves requested a blood test from a Kyoto University research team. 85% of citizens tested since July 2020 were found to be highly exposed. The highest was 70 times more than residents of uncontaminated areas.

Secretary Taniguchi became more and more passionate, and his attention was directed to the major media outlets.

“So far, there have been several reporters who have come to interview us. I greatly appreciate it. However, it was mostly just interviews and was not often reported in programs or newspaper articles. I believe that was because the source of the pollution was Daikin, a large company, and there is a risk of litigation, for example.”

“I would like to see Settsu City’s PFOA problem head-on and actively reported, including the fact that Daikin is the source of the pollution.”

Kyoto University team:  “There is no doubt that Daikin is the source of pollution”

Akio Koizumi, Professor Emeritus of Kyoto University, and Koji Harada, Associate Professor of Kyoto University, also attended the press conference. I thought this was a very effective strategy for the citizen’s group. This way Daikin’s responsibility as a source of pollution can be explained not only by the feelings of residents but also by scientific knowledge. Koizumi and Harada have been investigating PFOA contamination nationwide, including Settsu City, for 20 years.

Their common view is that there is no doubt that Daikin is the source of the pollution.

For example, in 2004, a Kyoto University team investigated PFOA concentrations in rivers nationwide. The concentration was particularly high in the Kyoto-Osaka-Hyogo region, and when they proceeded with the investigation, they came across the wastewater from the Daikin Yodogawa Plant in Settsu City. At that time, 10% of the world’s PFOA production was discharged.

A 2008 survey of atmospheric PFOA also indicated that the Yodogawa Plant was the source of the pollution. A 450-kilometer-square atmosphere from the Yodogawa Plant was analyzed by actual measurements and simulations, and they found that PFOA was diffused from the Yodogawa Plant all year round, with the wind changing direction depending on the season. The results of this research were published in Environmental Science & Technology, one of the world’s leading journals in the field of environmental health.

Exceeding the standard for gestational hypertension and kidney cancer

Professor Koizumi specializes in hygiene and has spent many years researching effects of harmful substances on health.

In 1994, Koizumi’s findings that mercury poisoning caused “smelter’s disease,” which involved workers at sulfuric acid manufacturing plants developing high fevers, were published in leading British medical journal “The Lancet.” The discovery even led to a revision of Japan’s Industrial Safety and Health Act.

At the press conference on that day, he expressed concerns about the health effects on residents due to PFOA contamination. He mentioned the “Guidance on PFAS Exposure, Testing, and Clinical Follow-up” published in the United States in July 2022 (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine).

According to the guidance, people with blood levels of 2 ng/ml or more should be in treatment.

However, in June 2022, blood tests of 11 Settsu citizens showed that all of them exceeded 2 ng/ml, and four of them had more than 20 ng/ml.

For pregnant women, for example, 2 to 20 ng/ml requires a test for gestational hypertension. Gestational hypertension is a condition in which women who did not have high blood pressure before pregnancy develop high blood pressure between the 20th week of pregnancy and the 12th week after childbirth, and it is one of the typical diseases caused by PFOA. It causes maternal hemorrhage, deterioration of liver function, fetal growth failure, etc., and in the worst case, it leads to death of mother and child.

Levels of 20 ng/ml or more require treatment considering the risk of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, and thyroid disease.

The number of people tested by the Kyoto University team was only a small percentage of citizens, but the rate of PFOA that was enough to affect health was high.

Professor Koizumi is angry that Daikin still does not address the health concerns of Settsu residents. This is because the Daikin factory in the United States paid a settlement of $4 million for 1/50 of the pollution in Settsu City.

“Having this issue addressed head-on and with greater transparency would rather raise Daikin’s reputation and evaluation. I think that’s it. As a large company listed on the First Section, I think it is very disappointing that they are hiding it.”

The courage of a former Daikin employee

The press conference ended in about an hour.

What was impressive was that a former Daikin employee who lives near the Yodogawa Plant attended the press conference. His own blood has more than three times the PFOA found in uncontaminated areas.

Before the press conference began, the man asked reporters not to film his face or publish his name. After he started asking for Daikin’s countermeasures, he started receiving prank calls at his home.

No one knows who would prank and why. Nevertheless, it is true that it would be difficult to raise a voice in the company town of Daikin that has brought economic benefits to Settsu City, such as in terms of employment.

Still, there is a steady stream of people like this man who muster up the courage to join the movement. The situation has clearly changed since I started investigating.

Will Osaka Prefecture seriously ask Daikin to take measures in the future? Will the government join to pursue Daikin’s responsibility? I will continue the investigation.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 24, 2023. Translation by Mana Shibata.)

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