Itoham’s wells clean, Kashiwa says

Declaration comes as reports link factory to chemical weapons site

by Jun Hongo

The city of Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, said Wednesday that no alarming levels of toxic cyanogen compounds have been found in water from seven wells at a local Itoham Foods Inc. factory amid embarrassing reports that the plant is within walking distance of a wartime chemical weapons training facility.

Citing the results of tests the city conducted on the wells in and around the plant Monday, Kashiwa officials said the levels of the compounds from the wells clear safety standards.

The Hyogo-based major ham and sausage maker, which has voluntarily recalled more than 3.3 million packages of 26 products made for itself and other companies, closed its Kashiwa factory for inspections Wednesday after unsafe levels of toxins were detected in well water it uses to make ham, sausage, pizzas and other food products.

The cyanogen compounds were detected in September, but Itoham waited for about a month to alert health authorities and business partners, blaming slow paperwork.

It is unclear where the toxin came from or why the water is now considered safe.

Heightening concern were fresh media reports that the factory stands near the grounds of an antiaircraft regiment of the former Imperial Japanese Army, suggesting a link to stored weapons.

But an Environment Ministry official told The Japan Times on Wednesday that the cyanogen compounds detected at the Kashiwa factory are unlikely to have originated from depleted chemical weapons used by the army.

Because cyanogen quickly decomposes in nature, it is improbable any wartime weapons caused the contamination, said Naoya Tsukamoto of the ministry’s Environmental Risk Assessment Office.

The assessment office studies chemical weapons left by the Imperial army and was aware by 2005 that weapons were being stored northeast of the ham maker’s plant.

While Tsukamoto acknowledged there were “poison gas facilities” used by the regiments, he said suggestions that there were gas chambers in the facility were misleading.

“That term brings to mind Auschwitz, but it was nothing like that,” he said, explaining that the gas facilities, which were common in many regiments, released tear gas to simulate chemical attacks and train soldiers.

Cyanogen was not used in such practices, and the assessment office does not consider the facility a danger.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site, cyanogen chloride, a variation of cyanogen, has properties similar to riot control agents. The CDC entry urges avoiding all contact with the chemical.

The Environment Ministry originally began investigating leaks from leftover chemical arms after water heavily contaminated with arsenic sickened residents of Kamisu, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 2003. The Imperial navy once had a chemical arms site near the town, and it was at one point suspected to be connected with the contamination.

The case in Chiba, however, doesn’t appear to be connected with such hazards. There were no chemical weapons production facilities near the Itoham factory, the assessment office said.

“Cyanogen does not exist in nature but is often used in metal processing,” Tsukamoto said, offering a different possibility for the source of the contamination.

Information from Kyodo added