During the 18 years I have been writing this column, few stories have haunted me as much as that about the Japanese-owned incinerator that, for more than a decade, fumigated the U.S. Naval Air Facility at Atsugi in the Kanagawa Prefecture cities of Yamato and Ayase.
Between 1998 and 2007, I have written six columns* on the incinerator, first known as Jinkanpo, then as the Shinkanpo Incineration Complex (SIC) and then, before it closed in 2001, as Enviro-Tech.
Today I still have videotapes of the incinerator spewing out black, oily smoke that U.S. Navy scientists found to contain a toxic mix of chemicals including tetrachloride dioxins, cadmium, mercury, nickel, chromium, arsenic and lead.
Sadly, the story did not end when the incinerator shut down. U.S. military personnel and their families who lived on the base during those years continue to suffer health effects, and for years they have fought for recognition and medical help from their government.
Finally, last month, the U.S. Senate passed a bill approving comprehensive legislation to deal with potentially hazardous environmental exposures on military installations. The bill is called the Examination of Exposure to Environmental Hazards During Military Service and Health Care for Camp Lejeune and Atsugi Naval Air Facility Veterans and Their Families Act of 2010.
The U.S. House of Representatives must still act, however, and there remains doubt about when, and if, this will happen.
Below are the stories of two women — Laurie Paganelli and Shelly Parulis — who have been instrumental in getting the U.S. government to begin taking responsibility for the Atsugi victims, after years of foot-dragging. If the bill is passed, it will also help those who suffered contaminated water supplies at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina that were first revealed in 1982.
When did you first become concerned about living on NAF Atsugi?
Laurie Paganelli: My husband is a naval officer, a pilot, and he was ordered to NAF Atsugi in July 1997. Our tour of duty was three years, to June 2000. We first became concerned about the incinerator due to the obvious “chemical smell” of the emissions and because of reports that it was burning toxic chemicals. The prevailing winds always brought the emissions directly over our son Jordan’s school (Shirley Lanham Elementary School) and also over our on-base housing.
Shelly Parulis: We were stationed at NAF Atsugi from January ’95 to May ’98. When we arrived, though, it was apparent the air was heavily polluted by Jinkanpo. Everyone had respiratory infections that were commonly referred to as the “Kanto Crud.”
What were the first efforts you made to find out about health risks, and what responses did you get?
L.P.: Our first efforts were through two women who were wives of men in my husband’s squadron. They had been trained in environmental science and engineering and began to investigate the operations and emissions of SIC. Through various meetings, e-mails and personal interactions, all of the families became aware of the hazards associated with the incinerator.
S.P.: Officially, early in 1998 there was a display of posters about dioxin poisoning and the Navy added papers to our medical records stating we were exposed to arsenic, benzene, cadmium, chromium, dioxin, lead, PCBs, nitrogen dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide and other chemicals that exceeded Maximum Contaminant Levels set by the U.S. government.
However, the consensus among us was not to worry, because we trusted that the Navy would not house families in a toxic zone.
When did you first notice health problems at Atsugi?
L.P.: Due to the smell, color and density of the emissions, we could tell that they were very chemical in nature. The emissions would burn our eyes, throats and other mucous membranes and our armpits. Additionally, our family experienced coughs, sore throats, and generally felt poorly during times of high emissions.
But our most tangible evidence of health problems came when we heard about pets dying of cancer and other health issues in quick succession. All of our neighbor’s dogs and outdoor cats died, either at NAF Atsugi or within a year of returning to the United States. Our 2-year-old golden retriever died six months after we returned to the U.S. She was a puppy at Atsugi and like most puppies, she played in the dirt and chewed on wood chips, twigs and other things that had obviously been impregnated with toxins from the SIC emissions. Her body was consumed by cancer so fast there was no hope for treatment.
S.P.: In 1997, the NAF Atsugi Commanding Officer (CO) explained in the Skywriter [a Navy newsletter] that there was no justification for transfers because the Navy did not have anything in writing stating SIC was a health concern. During our tour, some members of my family developed headaches, joint pain, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal issues, benign growths, and other illnesses. However, I didn’t make the connection to the incinerator exposure until my husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer a few years ago. Like most families, we believed the CO, and did not think the Navy would put our children in harm’s way.
What was the government response to these health issues?
L.P.: Few were surprised to hear of the health issues reported by former residents of Atsugi. When our son Jordan was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma [muscle cancer] in January 2008, we were flooded with calls and e-mails from former Atsugi residents who had become accustomed to hearing of such cases. Most people shared feelings of anger and betrayal because we, as residents and military members, were never told of the health hazards. It wasn’t until we transferred in 2000 that the clinic started to document the “known” exposure. We were required to fill out and sign documentation that acknowledged our awareness of the potential health risks posed by emissions.
S.P.: In the eyes of the Navy, the source of the exposure at NAF Atsugi was a Japanese-owned incinerator off base, which removes them from responsibility. A few Navy environmental and medical folks have been helpful, however; most requests have been ignored or only minimally acted upon. I have tried to obtain the peer review of the latest reports, but the Navy will not release it. I have pursued Freedom of Information Act requests, appealed denials, and fought for every report I got and publicly posted (www.atsugi-incinerator-group.com).
What do Atsugi and Camp Lejeune have in common?
L.P.: I don’t really know. However, politically, the Camp Lejeune situation carries more weight because it is located in the U.S. Congressmen are more apt to take action because of the political consequences of not appearing sympathetic to the concerns of their constituents.
S.P: The U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (SCVA) has been a wonderful supporter of those exposed to toxic chemicals while living and/or serving on military bases. But this type of needless toxic exposure will continue until the Navy is directed to takes immediate and appropriate action when they obtain knowledge of contamination and health risks. Many military members and dependents have faced toxic exposure at [several military bases in other countries].
What do you hope will come out of the recent legislation?
L.P.: Acknowledgement, awareness, and treatment for those who were exposed to health risks through no fault of their own.
S.P.: My hope is that this bill becomes a law that will benefit military members, dependents and veterans. I hope that there is greater awareness and that everyone who has been exposed by this type of negligence will know that they have the right to speak out. In doing so they can create change and perhaps stop this type of exposure from happening again.
What have been the high and low points of your efforts?
L.P.: The low point? On Nov. 9, 2009 our son died. The high points have been the genuine concern and compassion shown by many citizens and members of the SCVA.
S.P.: The low points are fighting tooth and nail to get studies and information released from the Navy — and their unwillingness to make all information public. As for high points, I have to applaud the SCVA for passing the bill.
What has been the hardest part of this long journey?
L.P.: Doctors may never be able to connect our son Jordan’s cancer and death directly to his exposure to toxic emissions from the SIC, but we certainly believe that it played a major role. As a young boy, he played outside all the time. Our housing, as well as his school and all the family sports fields, lay in the path of the SIC smoke. Knowing that my husband and our family went to Atsugi in good faith, assuming that there was no risk to our health, and knowing that our son may have contracted cancer while we were serving our country, these things have been very hard.
S.P.: The overwhelming concern I have for my husband and children’s health has been the hardest to deal with. My husband has been cancer-free for a few years now and I consider that a great blessing. Furthermore, talking with parents who have watched their children battle cancers, such as rhabdomyosarcoma, brain cancer, leukemia, lymphoma and other illnesses and disabilities that could have been prevented, has been absolutely heartbreaking.
But the most frustrating thing I have dealt with is the knowledge that the Navy could have stopped ordering families to Atsugi in 1990 when they determined there was a health risk — but they did not.
Any other thoughts you would like to share?
L.P.: As a family, we have always been ready and willing to do whatever the Navy asked of us. We simply hope that the U.S. government continues to support its military members by providing the benefits needed when risks are discovered in the line of duty.
S.P.: I would like to encourage everyone to remember that we Americans have the freedom and the right to speak out. Writing letters to our senators and representatives is one way to have our voices heard, and a way for those who are empowered to know something is wrong and change is needed. Remember, the facts are on your side.
Stephen Hesse is a professor at Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org *The columns that the author refers to appeared in The Japan Times on July 13 and 27, 1998; Feb. 12 and 26, and March 11, 2001; and June 27, 2007. Those published after 2000 can be found on the Web site at japantimes.co.jp