Polluted with PFOA

Since When Have They Been Drinking Water Contaminated with PFOA? [Kibichuo, Okayama Part-2]

2024.06.12 12:09 Nanami Nakagawa

On October 16, 2023 at 5 p.m., Kibichuo Town in Okayama Prefecture announced the following to its residents.

“Don’t drink the tap water from today.”

The sudden notice left the residents confused. What kind of substances had been in the water and since when? Even when residents inquired about it, they were not given sufficient information.

The town planned to hold a public information session for residents at 7 p.m. on the following day, the 17th.

Town official raises his voice in anger

Kyoko Uehara (pseudonym) drove to the venue, the municipal gymnasium.

It was 6:45 p.m. and she thought to herself, “Maybe I’ve arrived a little early,” but as she approached the venue, she saw a line of cars.

“So many people are here.”

All of them were residents who had come to the information session. The parking lot was crowded, and the security guards were searching for and directing people to available spaces. Kyoko got in line and followed the guard to the parking spot.

The gymnasium was packed with 300 people who sat in folding chairs. Kyoko sat next her friend Eiko Azuma, who lived nearby.

At the front of the venue was a long table where local town officials, including Mayor Masanori Yamamoto, Deputy Mayor Kiyoshi Okada, Water Department Chief Masanori Toshihara, and Bizen Health Center Director Toshihide Iwase, were seated.

What was going on? Kyoko recalled the events from the previous day.

At 5:30 p.m. in the evening on the 16th, her mother-in-law told her that the residents shouldn’t drink the tap water. She immediately called the town water department.

The children in front of her were eating curry rice she had cooked with tap water. How is it dangerous? When did it begin to contain dangerous substances? She asked the staff, but they just said, “In any case, please do not drink tap water.”

The opening hours of the town’s water station were too short. It was only open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., so residents who were at work were unable to get water. Kyoko and her husband both worked. A junior high student in the area rode his bike to pick up water for their parents, who were working.

The next morning, on the 17th, Kyoko was still not convinced and called the water department again.

But the answer was the same. Kyoko persisted.

“If you can’t extend the opening hours of the water station, can I submit the receipt of the water I bought to the town and get a refund?”

The town official said, “No, we can’t.”

When Kyoko complained, “People who are at work can’t pick it up,” the town official replied in an irritated voice.

“So, what time can you come and pick it up?”

Although surprised by the town official’s angry voice, Kyoko replied, “Please extend it until 9 p.m.”

“That’s not possible. If you can’t come on a weekday, please come and pick it up on the weekend.”

The town official responded in a very rude manner.

“We will be holding a public information session tonight, so please ask there for more details.”

It was then that Kyoko first learned about the existence of the information session.

The incident was discovered after the prefecture pointed it out

The information session began at 7 p.m. Representatives from the town hall took the microphone.

“In a survey conducted in fiscal year 2022, the organofluorine compounds ‘PFOS, PFOA’ were detected at 1,400 ng/L at the Enjo Water Purification Plant, which supplies water to the Enjo district, exceeding the national target value of 50 ng/L.”

Kyoko has lived in the Enjo district for over 10 years. Kibichuo Town has a population of just over 10,000, and Enjo district is home to 522 households and approximately 1,000 people. The Yasuragi Office, a day care facility run by the Social Welfare Council, is also located in the Enjo district.


Kyoko called an official of the water department yesterday to ask how long the contaminated water had been supplied, but the official simply replied, “It’s more than just days,” and gave no further information.

It hadn’t occurred to her that she had been drinking it since last year, so why is she finding out now?

According to the town, the story goes like this:

The water quality at the Enjo Water Purification Plant was measured in 2022, and 1,400 ng/L was detected.

The town did not take any action upon finding out the test results and only reported the numbers to the prefecture. In October 2023, a prefectural official noticed the high values ​​at the time and contacted the town through the public health center.

A document titled “Detection of Organic Compounds at Enjo Water Purification Plant” was distributed by Kibichuo Town at the information session on October 17, 2023. 

Kyoko Uehara’s Intuition

While listening to the explanation by Mayor Yamamoto and others, Kyoko looked at the handout that was distributed. It said that PFAS (PFOS, PFOA) are carcinogenic and affect the immune system. However, it also stated the following:

“There have been no confirmed cases in Japan of health damage caused primarily by the ingestion of PFOS or PFOA.”

Furthermore, Mayor Yamamoto stated:

“There is no definitive information.”

“There won’t be any immediate health effects.”

“There are areas across the country where the figures are even higher than Kibichuo Town.”

Kyoko suspected that the mayor was not telling the truth and was deceiving the residents to reassure them. In fact, Kibichuo Town was the first in Japan to have such high levels in its tap water. Kyoko finds out this fact later.

She had a hunch that the mayor wasn’t telling the truth because there were several other things that bothered her.

For example, the town explained, “Do not drink the water. And do not gargle either. However, it is okay to take a bath or wash your face.”

Why is gargling not allowed, yet bathing is okay? Small children will drink water while bathing. Does that mean it’s okay to put it in their mouths in small amounts? The town itself has banned drinking the water and hastily held an information session, so there’s no way there’s not a problem.

In addition, after her phone call with the water department yesterday, Kyoko had searched the Internet for information about organofluorine compounds.

“There may not be many people attending the information session. I need to listen carefully.”

She did thorough research to prepare many questions. Mayor Yamamoto stated, “There won’t be any immediate health effects,” but this is not something that can be taken lightly.

Even though the residents’ lives depended on it starting tomorrow, the town only gave vague explanations.

“We didn’t measure it before fiscal year 2020”

The town provided a brief explanation and then allowed questions.

Hands were raised in the audience, and some residents stood up to express their anger.

“I want my water bill refunded because I was drinking toxic water!”

“My husband and I have been drinking tap water for years. We both got cancer.”

“You’re going to do a blood test, right?”

One resident asked, “Since when have we been drinking this water?”

The town responded: “A survey conducted in fiscal year 2021 found that levels were 1,200 ng/L.”

The residents were surprised.

In the initial explanation, the town only explained that high concentrations were detected in water quality tests in 2022. Residents believed they had been drinking contaminated tap water for a year. However, it turns out that they had been drinking it for two years.

Why didn’t the town share this information in the first place? Was the town planning to keep this fact hidden if the residents hadn’t asked about it? The residents then asked further questions.

“What about before 2020?”

The town’s response: “We don’t know because we didn’t measure it before fiscal year 2020.”

Deputy Mayor laughs

Kyoko became convinced that the town could not be trusted.

What made her convinced even more was the words and actions of Deputy Mayor Okada.

A resident asked the town officials lined up in front of them.

“Can you drink this water? Please answer me, one by one.”

The deputy mayor answered with a laugh, “I use well water.”

Hiroshi Ogura could not remain silent either. He was a resident of the same Enjo district as Kyoko, and had called Akihiko Kataoka, the general affairs manager, the day before to question him. When asked why the drinking of tap water was banned, Kataoka only said that it was “bad for your health.” He was angry at Kataoka’s careless attitude.

“What’s going on with the town’s crisis management? Do you intend to protect lives?”

“What are your thoughts on compensation for the residents?”

The other residents also raised their hands one by one. Even Kyoko, who had prepared many questions, had no time to raise her hand.

Nevertheless, it was a little after 9 p.m. when the town official said, “The time has come to wrap things up.”

The residents shouted one after another.

“There are still people who want to ask questions!”

“I didn’t know it was until 9 p.m.!”

The session was closed.

To be continued.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 28, 2024. Translation by Mana Shibata.)

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