Reading the air: Tokyo still has work to do on air pollution

By Tim Hornyak

There are days when Makiko Ishikawa can barely breathe. Indeed, the 62-year-old Tokyoite has been short of breath for decades. In the early 1970s, she began feeling the effects of the miasma of vehicle exhaust along Shin-Ome Road, which ran by her home in the city of Musashimurayama in western Tokyo. In 1976, she developed bronchial asthma at age 20. Although she was repeatedly hospitalized with coughing fits, doctors prescribed medication for allergies. Her symptoms only grew worse.

Ishikawa is vice-president of a group fighting to win compensation for illnesses it claims are caused by air pollution. In 2007, plaintiffs won a settlement from local governments and automakers in Japan, but the group has been back in the news recently because its members say they haven’t received promised compensation for medical costs. It’s one of several ways that air quality is being put back into the spotlight ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“Air pollution causes respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, and I believe this is a public health hazard,” says Takao Nishimura, a lawyer for the group. “Although there has been some improvement in recent years, air pollution in central Tokyo is still at worrisome levels. High summer temperatures are a concern ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, but there are also concerns about the health and condition of athletes due to air pollution.”

Big data for a big problem

At the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesian walker Hendro called his performance “a miracle,” but that wasn’t because he completed the 50-kilometer race in record time. He finished last — the slowest showing for the event in nearly three decades — and about 30 minutes behind winner Hayato Katsuki of Japan. Hendro complained that the heat and air pollution in Jakarta were particularly brutal. Long-distance runner Rose Chelimo of Bahrain also claimed to have had difficulty breathing.

As the mercury hit 31 degrees Celsius, readings of PM2.5 — airborne particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less — were as high as 80 micrograms per cubic meter, eight times above the World Health Organization’s recommended level. PM2.5 particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream, and have been associated with strokes, pneumonia, heart disease, lung cancer and other illnesses.

Pollution at the Asian Games last year made international headlines, something the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020 is hoping to avoid. In May 2018, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announced new efforts to fight air pollution at an international event titled Tokyo Forum for Clean City & Clear Sky. Such measures included boosting sales of zero-emission vehicles by 50 percent by 2030.

While air in Japan is less polluted than that in Indonesia, it’s still dangerously dirty. At least 60,000 premature deaths occur from air pollution in Japan every year, according to a long-term, multicenter study published in The Lancet in 2017.

Meanwhile, Japan experienced a net increase in mortality attributed to air pollution between 1990 and 2017, according to “State of Global Air 2019,” a report published by the Health Effects Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, and the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Read the rest of the article at The Japan Times