The U.S. military on the Japanese island of Okinawa is facing accusations of environmental contamination after high levels of a carcinogenic chemical were found in the rivers around a U.S. air base and in the blood of local residents, according to a new study.

by Inder Singh Bisht

The controversy is inflaming an already sensitive situation for the U.S. military in Okinawa. The island is home to half the 54,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan and has the largest U.S. air base in the Asia-Pacific. The military presence, however, is widely unpopular.

It also mirrors wider concerns in the United States about contamination from a family of industrial chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The chemicals have a wide array of consumer and industrial uses, including in nonstick cookware and firefighting foam, but do not break down in the environment.

On Kadena Air Base, Okinawa prefecture, an accident blamed on a malfunctioning sprinkler system discharged tens of thousands of liters of firefighting foam in December 2013. Photographs obtained from the United States Air Force via the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

They are the target of congressional bills that would require stronger action to regulate their use and to decontaminate water supplies around the United States.

In Okinawa, a study by two Kyoto University professors found high concentrations of a chemical called perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in rivers passing through and around the Kadena Air Base and the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. 

PFOS is a chemical in the PFAS family and was used by the U.S. military as an ingredient in firefighting foam for five decades until 2015, along with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).  

US Army Base Poisoning Drinking Water Of Half a Million Japanese
The US Air Force base in Kadena, Japan, reportedly uses per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a chemical linked to cancers of the kidneys and testicles. Photo: Defense.gov

Opinion polls generally show the majority of Okinawans support the U.S.-Japan alliance – but they wish their prefecture wasn’t burdened with 70 percent of the U.S. military presence in Japan. They also wish SOFA would be overhauled; 39 of Japan’s 47 prefectural governors agree that SOFA needs to be rewritten.

At the time it was penned 60 years ago, nobody realized how harmful military operations could be to the environment, but in the ensuing decades, it has become clear that concentrating the U.S. military presence on Okinawa concentrates contamination there, too.

If the U.S. wants to maintain Okinawan support for the U.S.-Japan alliance then it needs to understand that protecting human health and the environment is inseparable from its wider mission of protecting Japan.

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