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Carcinogenic groundwater scare in Japan and recommendations for Taiwan

Former Taipei environment chief and scholar suggests 4 measures to government

Western Tokyo's Tama Reservoir. (Canva image)

Western Tokyo's Tama Reservoir. (Canva image)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Excess levels of a group of carcinogenic chemicals have been discovered in groundwater in multiple locations throughout Japan, after similar discoveries near U.S. military bases.

It was reported on Monday (Nov. 13) that groundwater in Osaka, Kyoto, Kansai, and Hyogo prefectures contain an amount of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which studies show exposure to is, in some cases, associated with higher rates of cancer. Blood tests of residents living near U.S. military bases in Okinawa and Western Tokyo have also shown high levels of the substance in the past, which are suspected to be related to a firefighting chemical used by the U.S. military.

In an article published on Taiwan News’ Mandarin language website, former head of Taipei’s environmental agency and visiting scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science Liu Ming-lung (劉銘龍) said PFAS are in thousands of products. Liu said in addition to national defense and aviation applications, PFAS are used in waterproofing treatments, non-stick frypans, and cosmetics.

PFAS are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” because they are resistant to water, grease, and heat, and do not break down in the environment or in the human body. The EU created regulations around PFAS in food earlier this year, Liu said.

Liu said excess levels of PFAS were also discovered in food products from the U.S. and Demark earlier this year. He said the health effects of PFAS are thought to have adverse effects on cholesterol and some internal organs and to increase rates of kidney and testicular cancers.

Liu recommended the Taiwan government take four steps to ensure people are safe from PFAS in the wake of the news. First, he said Taiwan’s Cabinet should publish an annual national survey on the issue, instead of leaving it to be managed by the six different government departments that currently oversee it.

Liu also recommended prioritizing making sure PFAS are not present in drinking water. He said the U.S. has subsidized water utilities to develop ways to remove PFAS from water and improve water purification efforts.

In line with similar moves by the European Union, Liu recommended the health ministry conduct a survey on background levels of PFAS in food on the market to help create better national food standards regarding PFAS. He also said that manufacturers should be encouraged to self-report.

The government might consider providing food providers with certifications that what they wrap food with does not contain PFAS, Liu said. He said this would incentivize manufacturers to avoid creating products using PFAS.