Japan: Endocrine Disrupters – now on the political agenda

The Environment Agency in Japan held its first major international conference on the endocrine disrupter issue Dec 11-13th, in Kyoto. On the first two days of the three-day event, scientists from around the world gathered to discuss their results and opinions on what action needs to be taken on the endocrine disrupter issue. Report by Asia Environmental Review (ASER).

Daniel Sheehan, who spoke representing the US National Center for Toxicological Research praised the organisers for holding the world’s first international gathering on the issue while endocrine disrupter pioneer John Myers (co-author of Our Stolen Future, a book which raised international awareness of the issue) noted that Kyoto, having held the world’s most important climate change conference in 1997, was now holding one of the world’s most important human health events.
In his speech on the closing day of the event, Myers noted the huge disparities in opinions within the scientific community on the risks posed by endocrine disrupters and slammed corporate funded research as being often biased and “manipulative”. He noted that the conference had been infiltrated by lobbyists acting on behalf of the US and European chemical industry associations, in town to try to influence the Japanese press. The Japanese media have been the most vocal in the world on this issue and have caused the Japanese packaged foods, plastics and chemicals industry to take drastic action.
The Japanese industry representatives were very much on the defensive at the conference. New Japanese NGO People’s Association on Countermeasures for Dioxin and Endocrine Disrupters attacked the Japanese establishment for not issuing clear information. The NGO’s spokeswoman, lawyer Yuko Nakashita challenged the Japanese ruling government to take more concrete action on dioxin contamination in Japan. She also attacked fellow panel member Professor Masatoshi Matsuo, from Sumitomo Chemical Co who was representing the Japanese agrochemical industry, for poor disclosure of information and generally poor communication with NGOs, the public and the press on the issue.
Professor Masatoshi had earlier declared in a presentation that the 20 potentially endocrine disrupting agricultural chemicals in use in Japan were safe, following tests conducted by the industry based on US EPA guidelines. Earlier in the day, Daniel Sheehan caused a sensation by declaring that these EPA testing methods were no longer valid for endocrine disrupters. According to Sheehan, there are no “threshold values” for which safe human or animal intake exists, a key assumption on which the EPA and Japanese industry tests were based.
He called for radical revision of risk assessment methods employed by the EPA and other international organisations for evaluating endocrine disrupters. Such risk assessment, he and other scientists argued, should be based on actual biological testing results rather than extrapolated “dose-response” curves.
The issue of risk assessment and its application to endocrine disruption was the key theme of the conference.

The high media profile of the separate but related issues of endocrine disruption and dioxin contamination have driven the issue high on the political agenda. The Kyoto conference was attended by several key political figures who voiced their position.

  • Kenji Manabe, the Director General of the Environment Agency opened the Sunday open conference with a pledge to address growing public concern.
  • Opposition representative Dr Shuichi Kato (who happens to be an environmental health expert) noted that the mortality rate in Japan varies dramatically by prefecture and environmental pollution could be a major cause. He also noted that that over 300,000 signatures had been collected nation-wide protesting the high levels of dioxin in mother’s milk in Japan. His party, the Komeito, is working with local authorities in Tokyo and the nearby city of Tokorozawa on dioxin pollution from incinerators.
    The Komeito is promoting its strong environmental policies and wants to see permanent, national legislation enacted as soon as possible. The party has issued a 5-year plan to address dioxin contamination in soil, air, foods and water in Japan.
  • Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party have appointed popular Upper House member (and ex-wrestler) Hirochi Hase to head its Subcommittee of Endocrine Disrupters. Hase outlined the ruling party’s strategy which includes spending 7 billion yen (euros 53.8 million) this year and 8 billion yen (euros 61.5 million) next year specifically on endocrine disrupter related research. He noted that his sub-committee would report to the Prime Minster’s office and try to co-ordinate some of the current research and policy moves by the various powerful Ministries within the Japanese government.

Prior to the conference, the Environment Agency (EA) announced the results of a nation-wide survey of water samples taken from rivers, lakes, the sea and ground water sources. The EA took 130 samples and tested for 22 of its list of suspected endocrine disrupters.
Key endocrine disrupters nonylphenol and bisphenol-A were detected in at least 80% of the samples. High levels were detected in the vicinity of industrial facilities.
Other Ministries are conducting their own studies, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) is checking the nation’s environment for endocrine disrupting substances originating from the use of pesticides.
Although there is no legislative action likely for endocrine disrupters which are not currently regulated (such as nonylphenol) there is strong market pressure on industry to eliminate such chemicals from their products and processes.
The opposition Komeito party, influenced by international research, called for the Japanese government to adopt a preventative approach to the issue and act now rather than wait until conclusive scientific proof is found. Japanese industry is very much on the defensive, surprised by the barrage of press and public criticism.
The severity of the industry pressure in Japan compared to the US and Europe is probably due to the extremely high levels of dioxins which are being uncovered in all parts of the human and natural environment in Japan. This comes at the same time as the endocrine disrupter issue is being highlighted around the world, and the media in Japan is linking the two issues, while academic researchers are reporting on health risks posed by dioxins and other endocrine disrupters to human and wildlife health.
Professor Tsuguyoshi Suzuki, who is Chairman of the Japan Society of Endocrine Disrupters Research (JSEDR) noted during a heated debate between industrial and NGO representatives at the conference, “the key issue facing industry in Japan on this issue will be risk communication”.

Contact: JSEDR, Tel: 81 298 502332 Fax: 81 298 502570

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