Residents of one of central Tokyo’s most densely populated areas are complaining that the air they breathe may be being contaminated by innumerable pathogens escaping from the the building next door.

Since 1992, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, an affiliate of the Health and Welfare Ministry, has been researching pathogens in an effort to understand their nature and find effective ways to combat them at its facility in Toyama in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.

Locals, who believe the facility emits pathogens and other harmful chemical substances through its ventilators, have sought a court order to stop the facility’s operations.

The laboratory has continued operating, however, claiming that it is “absolutely safe.” The two sides have been locked in dispute at the Tokyo District Court since construction of the facility commenced in 1988, with a ruling expected early next year.

The government mobilized riot police to remove local residents who staged a sit-in when construction commenced on the state-owned land.

The six-floor facility incorporates eight laboratories that stage experiments with such deadly viruses and bacilli as HIV, tuberculosis, salmonella, anthrax, plague, botulinus and the O-157 strain of E. coli.

The facility also deals with genetically modified organisms, organic solvents and houses tens of thousands of lab animals.

“We have constantly been concerned about bio-pollution from such laboratories,” said Shingo Shibata, 70, who leads the group of more than 200 plaintiffs that includes locals and people working at nearby facilities. “The construction of such a facility, which is not allowed in residential areas in any other industrialized country, should not be allowed in Japan either.”

Shibata, an honorary professor of sociology at Hiroshima University, who lives right behind the laboratory, said that locals have noticed offensive odors in the area on several occasions.

Inside the facility, pathogens are strictly confined in order to protect researchers from infection, but air containing pathogens and toxic substances are emitted into the outside air through ventilators, Shibata said.

While the ventilators are equipped with the most advanced filters capable of capturing around 99.97 percent of impurities, the remainder is released into the environment, said Hideo Arai, one of the NIID’s leading bacilli researchers. He added that even state-of-the-art techniques can not determine the level of threat the emissions present, he said.

Adjoining the laboratory’s 12,511-sq.-meter compound are numerous houses and apartments, two public facilities for the handicapped, Waseda University, a large general hospital and a park legally designated an evacuation site in cases of disaster.

Shibata emphasized the absurdity of the situation by referring to comments made by American ecologist Jeremy Rifkin, who visited the site in 1991. Rifkin said that the location of the laboratory is “crazy and shocking” and the “worst in the world” for such a facility, according to Shibata.

The plaintiffs have argued before the court that the World Health Organization’s 1997 guideline on safety in health-care laboratories prohibits laboratories dealing with dangerous pathogens from operating in residential areas. The guideline suggests that laboratories that deal with pathogens of similar danger to those researched at the NIID be built as far as possible from residential areas.

During the trial, the institute has consistently claimed that the WHO guideline is not mandatory and that the laboratory is “absolutely safe” according to its own standards.

But Shibata said that locals have never had the facility’s safety procedures adequately explained, either inside or outside the court.

In sharp contrast to the institute’s safety claims, Arai of the institute said he believes that the institute should immediately move to a more remote location.

“There are so many pathogens in our laboratory whose degree of danger are not fully understood, leaving the possibility that even the slightest emission could have a long-term effect on the health of our neighbors,” he said.

The biologist, who supports the residents’ campaign despite his role inside the laboratory, also said that the pathogens studied at the facility could cause an enormous disaster if they were inadvertently released into the environment.

“I am very sorry that my laboratory and colleagues have ignored our neighbors’ claims over the past decade,” he said.

Shibata also expects that the court will push the government to establish laws governing the treatment of pathogens at laboratories and other medical institutions, in order to prevent any bio-hazard from occurring.

No such law currently exists, and public and private laboratories are not required to notify their neighbors or local governments even when they experiment on the most dangerous pathogens.

“The issue is not just about our neighborhood, but other places in Tokyo, which has at least 20 laboratories with equipment to research pathogens as dangerous as the ones treated at the NIID,” he said.

Arai of the NIID said that the importance of pathogenic studies will increase in the future, considering the recent discovery of many fatal pathogens.

According to the WHO, more than 30 new pathogens, including fatal ones such as HIV and Ebola, have been discovered in the past 20 years.

“But our efforts to combat pathogens must be accompanied by our conscience as scientists, which necessitates first serving the health and lives of people,” Arai said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.