Recently, 22 barrels containing traces of lethal herbicides were discovered on former U.S. military land in the Japanese city of Okinawa. According to two leading Agent Orange specialists, the barrels could pose the same level of risks as dioxin hot spots in Vietnam where the American military stored toxic defoliants during the 1960s and 1970s.
Richard Clapp, professor emeritus at Boston University School of Public Health, and Wayne Dwernychuk, the scientist previously in charge of identifying defoliant contamination in southeast Asia, have warned Okinawa residents of the associated risks and recommended an immediate cleanup of the land to limit the threat to human health.
The discovery of the barrels seemingly contradicts the Pentagon's previous statements that military defoliants were never present on Okinawa Island. The scientist's comments came in response to release of independent tests on July 31, revealing that all 22 barrels found beneath the city's soccer pitch contained traces of the herbicide 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), and 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), the most lethal form of dioxin. Both 2,4,5-T and TCDD are found in Agent Orange.
One barrel contained dioxin levels 840 percent above the safe standard and samples taken from water near the site showed levels 280 times higher than the legal limit.
At least three barrels were labeled with markings from Dow Chemical Co., one of the major manufacturers of Agent Orange. "The Okinawa data, if accurate, are comparable to recent hot spot data collected in Vietnam. About half of the dioxin levels are above what (scientists) consider significant contamination," Clapp told The Japan Times.
Dwernychuk, who has pinpointed more than 20 potential dioxin hot spots in Vietnam, said, "If some of the levels seen in the Okinawa sample data sheet for TCDD were found in the environment of Vietnam, recommendations would be presented for immediate remediation, with attention being paid to potential exposure pathways to local populations."
Medical experts say that the hot spots in Vietnam are responsible for many serious illnesses among the local people, including cancer and birth defects. Estimates by the Vietnamese Red Cross place dioxin poisoning as affecting 3 million people, many of whom are exposed to the deadly chemical through the food chain, which it has entered through the local environment.
Soon after the barrels were unearthed in Okinawa, a Dow Chemical representative said that the type and markings used on the containers are inconsistent with the way it ships defoliants. There has been fierce debate regarding the contents and origin of the barrels since their discovery.
The Okinawa Defense Bureau did not announce the discovery of TCDD during a news conference July 24 until questioned by reporters; this has led to suspicions among many that authorities may be trying to downplay the significance of the situation.
Despite reports by the bureau minimizing the possibility that the barrels contained Agent Orange, Ehime University concluded that they "did not only contain herbicides, there is a possibility that defoliants were included, too."
Earlier this year, The Japan Times revealed that a 1971 U.S. Army report on Agent Orange cited the presence of an "herbicide stockpile" at the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.
The Pentagon continues to deny that Agent Orange was ever used or stored in Okinawa, despite over 150 U.S. service members testifying otherwise.
Dwernychuck urged local authorities to try to control and reduce the risk posed to people living in the area. "Removal of the barrels and contaminated soils should be a priority. Groundwater studies should be undertaken to determine if there has been any transport of TCDD to other areas - facilitating human exposure," he said.
The soccer field where the barrels were found is directly adjacent to a primary school and an intermediate school owned by the U.S. Department of Defense. The municipality of Okinawa says that further testing will be conducted in the area.