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Veterans Law

Veterans Exposed to Waste Incinerator Contaminants in Atsugi, Japan

Lisa Ioannilli

June 21, 2019

Updated: November 20, 2023

NAF Atsugi

About the Waste Incinerator in Atsugi

According to VA, from 1985 to 2001, personnel at Naval Air Facility (NAF) Atsugi in Atsugi, Japan may have been exposed to environmental contaminants from off-base waste incinerators.  Shinkampo Incinerator Complex (SIC) was a combustion waste disposal equipped with incinerators that burned up to 90 tons of industrial and medical waste daily.  Emissions included chemicals and other particulate matter.

SIC was owned and operated by a private Japanese company.  As such, the United States Navy did not have any affiliation with SIC other than its geographic location next to NAF Atsugi.  The U.S. Navy found a potential for increased health risks associated with the incinerator and worked with the Japanese government to close SIC.  Despite these concerns about the potential adverse health effects for NAF Atsugi personnel exposed to SIC emissions dating back to 1989, it was not formally shut down until May 2001.

Air Quality Studies at NAF Atsugi

The U.S. Navy and its contractors completed several air quality studies and health risk assessments between 1989 and 2002 at NAF Atsugi to address health concerns.  The studies estimated the potential increase in cancer risk and non-cancer health effects to Navy personnel and their families resulting from ingestion and skin absorption of chemicals through exposure to soil as well.  This is important to note because although the waste incinerator was closed in May 2001 and air pollutants are no longer an issue, the soil at NAF Atsugi is still impacted because of the emissions.

Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center – Health Risk Assessment

In June 1995, the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center was asked to perform a health risk assessment.  The preliminary health risk assessment concluded that the poor air quality at NAF Atsugi may increase the likelihood of both short- and long-term health effects.  The findings of this study were then used to support the need for a more comprehensive, but time intensive, human health risk assessment using exposure data collected for health risk assessment purposes.     

Navy’s Final Health Risk Assessment

The Navy’s Final Health Risk Assessment was conducted by the Navy Environmental Health Center and published in 2002.  This study found that cancer and non-cancer risks were elevated for both adults and children, but higher for children, from birth to age six.  Specifically, the results indicated that the air quality at NAF Atsugi could raise the excess lifetime cancer risk to levels higher than the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable cancer risk range (i.e. 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1,000,000 excess cases of cancer) for children under the age of six spending a normal 3-year tour of duty at NAF Atsugi.  The elevated risk in children was attributed to children’s typical hand-to-mouth behavior and their engagement in activities closer to the ground, both of which increase the amount of soil and dust that they are likely to ingest.

Additionally, the study listed 12 emissions coming from the waste incinerator that exceeded the U.S. EPA’s ambient air quality standards, including benzene and dioxin, two chemicals associated with an increased risk for cancer.  Furthermore, the majority of the 12 emissions are included on the “Top 25 List” of the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry Priority List of Toxic Chemicals.

Potential Short- and Long-Term Health Effects of Exposure to Waste Incinerator Contaminants

Generally speaking, short-term health effects of veterans exposed to waste incinerator contaminants could include irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, skin rashes, and sinus problems.  However, these conditions usually resolved after the exposure ended.  Long-term health effects could include a possible increase in the lifetime risk for cancer as indicated above.  Some possible cancers associated with waste incinerator contaminants include the following:

  • AML leukemia
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Brain cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Bone cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Renal cell carcinoma
  • Rectal cancer
  • T-cell and thyroid cancer

VA Disability Benefits for Health Problems Relating to Exposure at NAF Atsugi

Despite acknowledging veterans’ potential exposure, VA maintains that currently there is no definitive scientific evidence to show that living at NAF Atsugi while the incinerator operated caused additional risk for disease.  Veterans may file a claim for disability benefits for health problems they believe are related to exposure to waste incinerator contaminants during service at NAF Atsugi, but VA decides these claims on a case-by-case basis.  There is no presumption of service connection associated with any conditions based on such service.

About the Author

Bio photo of Lisa Ioannilli

Lisa joined CCK in March 2012. Lisa is a Senior Attorney focusing on representing disabled veterans in claims pending before the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

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