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Drawing parallels between contaminated water near military bases on Okinawa and Oʻahu

kadena air base okinawa japan
Greg Erwin/AP
U.S. Air Force
In this June 29, 2017 photo made available by the U.S. Air Force, an F-15 fighter plane taxis back to the hangar at Kadena Air Base, Japan. (Airman 1st Class Greg Erwin/U.S. Air Force via AP)

"Since 2016, the drinking water for Okinawans has been contaminated with forever chemicals. It's 450,000 people. Their water's been poisoned by PFAS, forever chemicals from one of the military bases on Okinawa," said Jon Mitchell, a journalist originally from Wales who lives in Japan.

So-called forever chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, can be found in fire-retardent materials and firefighting foam. They do not break down in the environment.

"These chemicals build up. These chemicals cause a variety of really, really dangerous health effects. And only now are scientists really putting together the pieces, and understanding just how extensive the problems are," he said.

For the past seven years, Mitchell has been investigating increased PFAS levels near Kadena Air Base, a key military hub in the Asia-Pacific.

military base firefighting foam.JPG
"Nuchi nu Miji - Okinawa's Water of Life"/Jon Mitchell

Mitchell said the military has not allowed Japanese officials to enter the base and investigate the contamination themselves. Using Freedom of Information Act requests, he said he found records of multiple firefighting foam spills.

He was in Honolulu to talk about his new documentary film, “Nuchi nu Miji - Okinawa's Water of Life,” about the forever chemicals, U.S. military presence on the island, and the importance of water.

"We're really, really happy to be bringing this documentary to Hawaiʻi because the water here is at risk, the water here has been contaminated," he said, referring to the Navy Red Hill fuel leak in November 2021.

"We really hope by screening this documentary in Hawaiʻi, that people here will be able to understand that they are not alone, that this contamination has occurred in Okinawa, and hopefully, people will be able to draw some similarities. And also, they'll be able to draw some lessons from how the military has handled this problem in Okinawa," Mitchell told The Conversation.

A free event about the film and water contamination in Hawaiʻi will be held at Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu on Saturday night. Mitchell will be joined by Erwin Kawata from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, among others.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Feb. 24, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1. This interview has been adapted for the web by HPR's Sophia McCullough.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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