Polluted with PFOA

“Don’t Drink The Tap Water From Today” / Why In Town Without a PFOA Factory [Kibichuo, Okayama Part-1]

2024.05.29 15:56 Nanami Nakagawa

Two and a half years have passed since the start of this series, “Polluted with PFOA.”

Daikin Industries has contaminated the area surrounding its Yodogawa Plant in Settsu City, Osaka Prefecture, as a result of manufacturing and using PFOA for half a century.

Daikin grasped the true extent of the pollution in the 2000s.

However, Daikin covered up the contamination. The local governments of Settsu City and Osaka Prefecture, which oversee the company, were complicit in the cover-up. Due to the collusion between the company and the administration, the number of affected residents and the extent of the contamination have grown to unfathomable proportions.

In response to Tansa’s investigation, Daikin admitted for the first time that “there is no doubt that we are one of the sources of contamination.” Based on Tansa’s articles, local councils and the National Diet repeatedly discussed how to respond to PFOA contamination.

I will continue to pursue responsibility for the contamination around the PFOA factory.

Meanwhile, I began to have doubts.

“Where does PFOA ultimately end up?”

Many companies in Japan, including Daikin, one of the world’s top eight manufacturers, have been producing and using PFOA for over 50 years.

Furthermore, PFOA is very persistent. Because it is so difficult to degrade, it is known as the “forever chemical.” To entirely degrade it, it must be burned at temperatures exceeding 1,100 degrees. However, there are only a handful of facilities in Japan that can do this.

If PFOA had not been degraded and disposed of, a considerable amount of it would still be present throughout the country. The PFOA that is causing contamination at the Yodogawa Plant is only a small component of the problem.

My question about where PFOA ends up has turned into a concern.

“It seems like the cleanup of PFOA is becoming too much for manufacturers to handle on their own.”

Just then, the incident occurred.

In the fall of 2023, high concentrations of PFOA were detected in tap water in Kibichuo Town, Okayama Prefecture, at levels 28 times higher than the national target level.

More than 1,000 residents have been drinking the water on a daily basis for at least three years, and high amounts of PFOA were found in all 27 residents who had blood tests beforehand, including a two-year-old child.

There are no PFOA manufacturing plants in this town.

The cause was PFOA-containing waste that a company had brought in from outside the town.

Tansa will start a new series, “Kibichuo, Okayama Edition.”

The red area is Kibichuo Town, Map-It (c)

While feeding the children curry rice

At around 5:30 p.m. on October 16, 2023, Kyoko Uehara (pseudonym) was at home in Kibichuo Town, Okayama Prefecture. She was feeding her two-year-old and six-year-old sons curry rice for dinner.

There, her mother-in-law, who lives with them, came home looking panicked.

“Off-Talk, did you hear that?”

Off-Talk is a speaker installed in each home in the town to broadcast local announcements. The town hall sends out notifications at scheduled times in the morning and evening, as well as during emergencies. Even if the regular announcements are turned off, the speaker will always ring in the event of a fire or other major disaster.

Kyoko’s house has it installed in the dining room, which joins the kitchen and the living room. If there is an off-talk call while cooking or dining, it will be clearly heard. But Kyoko didn’t hear it.

When Kyoko asked, “There was no ringing. Why?” her mother-in-law told her what she had heard at her friend’s house.

“It said that there was something strange in the tap water, so don’t drink it from today onwards.”

Kyoko doesn’t understand what that means.

“What do you mean, don’t drink water? I’m feeding these kids curry made with tap water right now.”

Her mother-in-law said, “I don’t really understand, but I think we have to go get some water by 7 p.m..” So she hurried home.

Gathering plastic bottles

Kyoko put down her food and looked up the town hall’s phone number. She dialed the direct number for the water department.

“I was told not to drink tap water, but what’s in it?”

The official at town hall replied.

“It’s an organofluorine compound.”

It was the first time Kyoko had heard that word. What on earth could the problem be? The town official answered:

“It’s not something that will have an immediate effect on your body, so it’s okay.”

Although there may be no immediate effects, Kyoko and her sons have been drinking this water since this morning. Even though they received notification after they had finished cooking dinner, it was too late. Kyoko asked, “When did you find out?”

The town official answered, “The 13th.”

Why would they announce something they’ve known about for three days only today? Could we have been drinking unknown water for three days straight? Kyoko asked further.

“How many days have you been supplying this water?”

The town official did not give a specific time frame, but said:

“It’s more than just days.”

The town official continues.

“In any case, please do not drink tap water and come to the water station to collect water by 7 p.m..”

Kyoko glanced at the clock. It was only about an hour until 7 p.m..

She asked if they could extend the water supply time, but they refused, saying, “That’s not possible.”

After hanging up the phone, Kyoko and her mother-in-law gathered empty plastic bottles from around the house.

On behalf of Kyoko who was taking care of the children, Kyoko’s mother-in-law went to the water station.

After a while, her mother-in-law came back. She brought two 4-liter bottles, but for some reason she also had an empty plastic bottle in her arms.

“They only gave out two bottles per household.”

The Uehara family consists of five people: Kyoko, her two sons, her mother-in-law, and her husband. Eight liters is not enough.

Kyoko contacted her husband, who was working outside of town, and asked him to buy some bottled water on his way home.

Kyoko Uehara, who keeps the town’s documents on PFOA contamination (photo by Nanami Nakagawa on February 20, 2024)

Insisting that it is “bad for your health”

Hiroshi Ogura was working in a field about 300 meters from the Uehara family’s house at 5 p.m. that day. He heard the sound of an off-talk coming from his house. The regular evening broadcast was supposed to be at 8 p.m.. Was there some special announcement?

Hiroshi asked his wife, who was at home, “What was the broadcast about?” His wife replied:

“It said that from today, please do not drink tap water and come to the water station by 7 p.m..”

“What’s going on?” Hiroshi stopped working and called the general affairs department at the town hall. He thought he could get a general overview.

When Hiroshi asked, “I heard the broadcast,” the town official replied:

“What do you mean?”

“I heard in an off-talk broadcast earlier that we shouldn’t drink tap water.”

The town official on the other end of the phone had no idea what was going on. Why didn’t the General Affairs Department understand that there was an emergency situation in which people shouldn’t drink the tap water? Hiroshi asked for a town official who knows about the situation.

General Affairs Manager Akihiko Kataoka was handed the phone.

What had been mixed into the water? Hiroshi asked that first.

“It’s an organofluorine compound,” Kataoka says.

What kind of danger does it pose?

Kataoka said, “It is a substance that is harmful to the body. We received instructions from the public health center, but I don’t know anything more than that.”

That’s not good enough. The residents have been ingesting so much poisonous water that they have to stop drinking it. The residents have a right to know how dangerous it is.

Hiroshi asked for more details.

Kataoka didn’t answer except to say, “It’s bad for your body.”

No matter how many times Hiroshi pressed him, the answer was always the same.

Hiroshi Ogura’s concerns

There was something that bothered Hiroshi.

The issues are the limited water supply hours and the way in which information was communicated to the residents.

It is unrealistic for the residents to learn about the problem at 5 p.m. on a weekday and then rush to the water station within two hours. Many people are likely to have work or other obligations even after 7 p.m., or do not have means of transportation to the water station.

It is possible that the information was not adequately delivered in the first place. Hiroshi was able to learn about the contents of the off-talk announcement since his wife happened to be home at the time.

Hiroshi asked Kataoka.

“Water supply till 7 p.m. is inadequate. Many homes don’t have off-talk. Why not send information to the president of the neighborhood association or drive around town in a public relations vehicle?”

Kataoka replied, “Thank you for your excellent suggestion.”

Kataoka brushed it off politely, but Hiroshi’s concerns and criticism were valid. It was later discovered that due to a lack of publicity from the town, a resident continued to drink tap water for over a month after that day.

Hiroshi Ogura (photo by Nanami Nakagawa on March 2, 2024)

A ban on drinking had been decided that morning

The town notified the residents to stop drinking the tap water at 5 p.m. on October 16th.

However, a ban on drinking had been decided that morning.

The town’s Social Welfare Council received a phone call shortly after work started.

The person who answered the phone was Yoshiko Sugiyama, Secretary General of the Social Welfare Council.

The person she is talking to is Kobayashi Naoki, the head of the town’s welfare department.

“I have something I’d like to tell you. Could you please make some time today?”

Sugiyama asked what it is about, but was told he would tell her directly.

At 3 p.m., Kobayashi arrived at the Social Welfare Council.

Kobayashi said, “We would like you to refrain from using tap water in the meals served at Yasuragi Office.”

The town has three welfare centers run by the Social Welfare Council. One of these is the Yasuragi Office, which mostly serves elderly people who have been certified as requiring nursing care and offers meals and bathing assistance.

Why shouldn’t it be used?

When Sugiyama asked why, Kobayashi replied, “Organofluorine compounds were detected.”

It was a word Sugiyama had never heard before.

“What effect does that have?” she asked, to which Kobayashi replied, “Well, I don’t really know, but you shouldn’t drink it anyway.”

Tap water is essential to the operation of the facility. It is used for tea and meals, and of course for baths.

Sugiyama asked, “Is it okay to wash the vegetables used in lunches?”

Kobayashi replied, “I don’t know.”

“So, can we use it in the bath?”

Kobayashi said, “As long as you don’t drink it, a bath is probably fine.”

The town hall bought up all the water in the town

After Kobayashi, the head of the town’s welfare department left, Sugiyama called an emergency meeting of the social welfare council staff.

Now that they can no longer use tap water, they need to secure water.

They immediately contacted nearby supermarkets and hardware stores, but the town hall had already bought up all the water. They needed to order 270 two-liter bottles from the online shopping site Askul. The water will arrive by noon the next day. They decided to have other offices deliver the amount of water they needed until then.

They were able to secure water for the Yasuragi office, but it is unlikely that all residents can get safe water. There must be elderly people who lack the means to get to the water supply station or who can’t carry heavy bottles of water.

Sugiyama contacted the town welfare department and asked them to provide her with a list of elderly households so that they could grasp the situation and provide support as needed.

Nevertheless, they did not have the list on hand. She was told that they would look for it in the town hall, and then she hung up the phone.

Sugiyama and her staff discussed future response plans while they waited for the list to arrive.

The clock hands ticked. 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m..

It was past 8 p.m. and the list still hadn’t arrived.

There was no contact from the town office that day afterall.

To be continued

(Originally published in Japanese on May 21, 2024. Translation by Mana Shibata.)

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