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Nose, a small town on the northern outskirts of Osaka, first put the fear of dioxin into nation’s consciousness last year. Now, just 10 months later, another dioxin scare has hit the headlines. This time, the site is Tokorozawa, the Saitama bedroom community on the northwestern outskirts of Tokyo. The scale of the dioxin contamination, authorities say, is different, but the root is the same: garbage incineration.

Given the carcinogenic nature of dioxin, Tokorozawa has once again given us a wakeup call on the lifestyle we Japanese have long taken for granted — one dependent on the assumption that garbage, if neatly wrapped in a vinyl bag and properly placed on the doorstep, will be collected and safely disposed of. The crude reality is that Japan is a crowded island nation, and there aren’t many landfills where garbage can be dumped and forgotten about. The alternative is incineration, and Japan is by far the biggest incinerator of garbage in the developed world.

To minimize the emission of dioxin and other harmful chemicals from both household and industrial garbage, the government has sought to build cleaner, more efficient incinerators and eliminate the small, dirty burners that cannot meet dioxin-emission standards. These clean-burning incinerators should reduce dioxin emissions to acceptable levels sometime in the future, but this is cold comfort to those residents who now live in close proximity to the heavy polluters.

The complexity of modern life, along with all the conveniences that come with our throw-away culture, makes a clean solution to the garbage problem a difficult goal to achieve. But there are many things the government and the public can do to minimize the health risks. Here are three examples.

First, crack down on polluters. With more than 50 million tons of household garbage generated each year, garbage incineration is big business in Japan and a constant source of friction with residents who must live close to the polluting monsters. Unscrupulous operators have been known to employ the services of gangsters to smooth out their problems, and some corrupt municipalities have turned a blind eye to the operation of the most polluting incinerators. The authorities must step up the enforcement of environmental laws and see to it that the laws governing the emission of hazardous materials from incinerators are strictly followed.

Second, respect the public’s right to know. Many Japanese public institutions still disseminate information on a strictly need-to-know basis, rather than releasing the information and letting the public judge for themselves. In Tokorozawa, the alarm was sounded — although somewhat erroneously and in an exaggerated manner — by a TV Asahi report. On the basis of an independent study conducted after the local branch of the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives repeatedly refused to release the results of a 1997 study on local dioxin emissions, the report alleged that abnormal levels of dioxin had been found on locally grown green, leafy vegetables.

Under intense public pressure, the Tokorozawa agricultural union relented. Despite criticism of the partially misleading contents of the TV report, the public was calmed somewhat. However, Tokorozawa is still withholding the names of incinerator operators who fail to meet government emission standards. When public health is at stake, it is a dereliction of government duty for authorities to allow public institutions to hide information of public interest without penalty. In a democracy, the public’s right to know is as inalienable as the right to vote. One is meaningless without the other.

Third, raise consumer awareness. Consumer protection is one thing, consumer responsibility is quite another. As consumers, we need to ask ourselves these questions: Where do all the dioxins come from, and how can we decrease them? There is no point stopping at vegetables and seafood or even at incinerator emissions. After all, over 80 percent of the estimated 51 to 53 kg of annual dioxin emissions nationwide comes from the burning of household garbage. Each of us must make individual efforts to reduce the volume of garbage, even though it means personal sacrifice and some modification in lifestyle.

As a society, we can no longer afford to leave the environment and its preservation entirely in the hands of the government and the bureaucracy. We must act. If anything good is to come out of the dioxin scare in Tokorozawa, it is that it provides another incentive to examine our priorities with regard to the environment. The stakes cannot be higher. The outcome will have a definite impact on our quality of life.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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