Mariners say the oceans reveal their secrets only grudgingly. Shelly Parulis would say the same of the U.S. Navy.
No matter. Parulis is undaunted in her quest to find out what that branch of the American armed forces knows — and what it is going to do about — toxic smoke that billowed across the U.S Naval Air Facility at Atsugi in Japan’s central Kanagawa Prefecture for more than a decade.
The wife of a U.S. Marine, and a mother of two, Parulis and others believe that the cancers, lesions and other health problems they and their families suffer are linked to carcinogenic emissions they were exposed to while on assignment at NAF Atsugi.
Longtime readers of The Japan Times may remember two series of columns I wrote about a privately owned incinerator abutting the Atsugi base, about 40 km southwest of Tokyo (July 13, 27, 1998; Feb. 12, 26 and March 11, 2001). For years the facility spewed out an acrid mix of dangerous chemicals, contaminating the air, soil, homes and offices of U.S. Navy personnel and their families.
The incinerator finally closed in 2001, soon after the U.S. Department of Justice brought a lawsuit against the owner. Interestingly, just before the court handed down its decision, the Japanese government paid the facility owner millions of dollars to close its doors. In so doing, it brought the controversy to an abrupt, if murky, close.
The story of Jinkanpo, also know as the Shinkanpo Incineration Complex, and later renamed Enviro-Tech, is a tale of frustration, of clashing cultures, and of overt and covert links between Japanese officials and the underworld, which was involved in the “legal” disposal of toxic and medical wastes.
It is also a story of U.S. officials spending millions on testing and surveillance, and bending over backward to work within the Japanese system, even as irrefutable proof piled up that U.S. personnel and their families were being exposed to grave health risks.
And it is the story of Japanese and Americans putting blind faith in their governments, assuming that those responsible would do the right thing and let people know if they, and their families, were at risk.
For Shelly Parulis, her eyes were forced wide open when her family’s health suddenly began to decline. “My husband, at 40, was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, kidney cancer. The cancer is in remission now, but his diagnosis was when I started to wonder if the incinerator’s toxic emissions had caused his cancer,” she said in an e-mail.
“My family has had several bizarre health issues since we came back to the States in 1998. Our daughter had a strange scalp infection and lost most of her hair. It took about a year to grow back. She also had two small benign tumors on her foot. My son started having migraines and rapid-heartbeat episodes the last few months we were stationed at Atsugi. However, as time has passed these problems have diminished. Recently, though, now 15, he had 20-30 small lesions appeared on both his feet and ankle areas. He also has had a tumor removed from his arm,” she explained.
Parulis’ husband has served in the U.S. Marine Corps for more than 20 years and he and his family were stationed at NAF Atsugi from 1995 to 1998.
“The incinerator was just a couple of hundred meters from our military housing unit, the child day-care center that my son attended, and the Shirley Lanham Elementary School were I worked and our children went to school,” she said.
In her search for more information about the pollutants that contaminated Atsugi, Parulis has met others suffering “Atsugi syndrome.”
These are some of the experiences they have shared:
Andrea: “I was stationed in Atsugi from 1982 to 1985. Daily I encountered a foul odor in the air and noticed a dark heavy haze over the base generally throughout the day. At times it was hard to breathe and I developed severe migraines. During my four years in Atsugi I also developed rectal bleeding and gastrointestinal cramping. I did not realize until many years later that this was caused by Crohn’s disease, which is a GI autoimmune disease. I also suffer Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a liver disease. Every symptom and disease I have shown over the past 17 years fits the findings of toxic exposure.”
Steve: “We were stationed at Atsugi from 1987 to 1990. Our daughter was born in 1984 in [nearby] Yokosuka. In 2004 she was diagnosed with cancer, acute myelogenous leukemia. In 2006 she passed away at the age of 22.”
Marlyn: “From 1989 to 1994 we lived 250 meters from Jinkanpo. There are 246 toxins listed at Atsugi, including benzene, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, hydrochloric acid, carbon tetrachloride dioxins, cadmium, mercury, nickel, chromium, arsenic and lead, to list just some. My whole family has had health problems — neurological problems, immune-system disorders, skin disorders, lung problems, headaches, dizziness, depression, insomnia, tremor, numbness, muscle weakness, nervousness, anxiety, fatigue.”
John: “I was stationed at NAF Atsugi from April 1991 through April 1995.
During that time I often experienced general fatigue, suffered nose bleeds, and had intense itching on my palms and the soles of my feet. Shortly after my transfer in 1997, I was diagnosed with Primary Biliary Cirrhosis, a rare non-behavior based autoimmune liver disease with no known cause or cure. I received a liver transplant in November 1999. I have since been diagnosed with several other autoimmune illnesses. My wife, who was stationed with me, has also been diagnosed with several autoimmune illnesses, including Lupus, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.”
Jinkanpo began operations in 1980, and within several years Atsugi residents became uneasy.
By 1990, health concerns spurred a regional commander to request that the Naval Energy and Environmental Support Activity do an on-site inspection.
Their report was unequivocal. “We were mentally unprepared for anything this bad,” the team of engineers reported.
“Industrial wastes and plastics contained in municipal solid and commercial waste create a ‘witches brew’ of toxic emission . . . much of NAF is fumigated by noxious fumes. Personnel at the facility complain of eye irritation, nausea and respiratory discomfort when exposed to the plumes,” they wrote.
“One heck of a problem — a definite health issue. There is a strong potential for adverse health effects on base residents because of the incinerators,” they concluded.
Because the incinerator was owned by a Japanese national under Japanese jurisdiction, however, few of the team’s recommendations could actually be implemented by the U.S. Navy.
And Japanese authorities insisted the owner was operating within the law, despite clear evidence to the contrary.
It took 11 more years of wrangling before the incinerator closed.
Parulis has been in touch with the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery at the Department of the Navy, and BUMED has replied with polite caution. The U.S. Navy has agreed to do a limited health survey of selected former Atsugi residents, but there is no doubt that officials are also worried about liability — perhaps more than they are worried about tracking down and helping past and present victims of Atsugi Syndrome.
When Parulis wrote to an environmental consulting firm in Tokyo concerning work it had done for the U.S. Navy on the incinerator issue, the firm’s answer was revealing:
Unfortunately, NAF Atsugi has no intention to provide any assistance for you here in Japan. They said to me, that you should contact someone available in U.S. They are afraid of the law suit (accusation) that might be planned by you.”
So what does Parulis want from the U.S. Navy?
She outlines her recommendations in a May 21 letter to Rear Admiral D.J. Smith at BUMED: Conduct a health survey of all those exposed to the Atsugi emissions; notify all exposed personnel of the health risks associated with assignments at NAF Atsugi. Explain the chemicals and their effects to all those exposed. Notify and educate all Navy hospitals, clinics and veterans health facilities regarding the diseases and complications related to the Atsugi toxic exposure; and, fund preventative health screening and care.
But perhaps more than anything else, Parulis wants to know why the U.S. Navy continued to send families with small children to NAF Atsugi when they already knew about the dangerous toxins in the air, soil, schools and living quarters there.
When I heard this, I truly wanted to offer some consolation, some explanation, knowing how much she and her family are suffering.
But no satisfactory answer came to mind.
Except simple hubris: The excess confidence and pride that infects those in power, allowing them to justify the sacrifice of others for their own self-righteous agenda — even those they have been charged to protect and serve.