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After years of neglect, politicians and bureaucrats are finally getting their acts together and addressing the issue of dioxin contamination. In March, the government announced plans to cut nationwide dioxin emissions by 90 percent of its 1997 level by 2002, and the ruling parties are poised to submit a dioxin special-measures bill to the House of Councilors. If this bill is enacted by both houses of the Diet, the government would be empowered to establish limits on the concentration of dioxin in the air, water and soil on the basis of an agreed-upon level of Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI), the maximum recommended level of dioxin intake, above which health problems are prone to occur over time.

In response, a joint task force of the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Environment Agency has proposed bringing the TDI level from the current 10 picograms per kilogram of body weight to four picograms, in line with recommendations made by the World Health Organization. (One picogram equals one-trillionth of a gram.) Last week, the Environment Agency released an inventory detailing emissions estimates from various sources, ranging from incinerators to crematoriums, and announced new measures to tackle the problem.

Public outcry and government regulatory efforts have already reduced dioxin emissions to about 2.9 kg in 1998, down from 6.3 kg the year before. All these developments are welcome, but there is no reason for complacency. Although the new Japanese TDI standard falls within WHO’s recommendation of one to four picograms, it must be pointed out that the Japanese TDI stands at the high end of the WHO scale and is much higher than standards set by other developed countries. The actual dioxin intake in Japan — at 2.6 picograms — is comfortably lower than the government’s TDI guideline, but this is cold comfort. The WHO has recommended an ultimate goal of under 1 picogram.

In fact, the designation of a relatively high TDI standard will give industries and consumers a false sense of security and deflect efforts to tackle dioxin contamination at its source. Such complacency will also do little to help breast-fed infants, whose daily intake is said to be as high as 60 picograms.

Of course, official reluctance to be more stringent is not difficult to understand. A more rigorous TDI standard will ring alarm bells for most citizens, whose regular diet includes a considerable amount of seafood, in which dioxin contamination is relatively serious. It will also be reflected in a much more stringent standard for farmers and industries alike. The costs to local governments, too, could skyrocket as they scramble to build larger and better incinerators to meet the new emissions standard.

Dioxin’s carcinogenic toxicity, its disruptive effect on animal hormones and its potential for bio-accumulation are already well documented. Evidence of serious contamination in many locations is apparent. While no human disaster has yet erupted, worry about damage to health has begun to turn to alarm. No responsible government should wait until a disaster is imminent before taking action.

With the new TDI standard and accompanying legislation now in place, no time should be lost in working out specific guidelines and measures for contaminant levels from industrial plants and for air emissions from incinerators nationwide. Effective policing is also important. In areas already suffering from actual contamination problems, the only solution might be to impose an immediate moratorium on further incineration. For others, the central government should work out formulas for assistance, financial and otherwise, to help local authorities improve their garbage-disposal capabilities, particularly municipal incinerators.

At the same time, the government must think of a broader strategy for cutting the use of dioxin-causing material. This should encompass harmful carcinogenic substances and chemicals from all sources: incinerators, sintering plants, furnaces and electricity-generation plants.

Ultimately, however, it will depend on the will and readiness of society as a whole to wean itself from dependence on resins, plastics and other dioxin-producing chemicals. Moreover, as some 92 percent of the dioxin emitted in Japan (1990 data) is attributable to waste incineration, we need to do much better in reducing the household wastes we produce. Dioxin intake is bio-accumulative, which is why legal control policy must be more forward-looking and as stringent as possible.

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