Asbestos and Other Deadly Contamination on U.S. Base on Okinawa

Recently released documents paint a horrific picture of decades of mistreatment of the island’s environment tied to activity on Kadena Air Base.

In this patriotic season that includes Memorial Day and Independence Day, we salute the sacrifices of our servicemen and women, along with their families, made on behalf of us all, now and historically. Sadly, it is well documented that some military personnel and their families, along with some civilian employees and contractors, have been exposed to asbestos and other dangerous substances on U.S. bases where they have served, worked and lived around the world over many years.

In April 2016, The Japan Times ran a two-part exposé based on documents released pursuant to a US Freedom of Information Act or FOIA request about shocking chemical contamination of land and water at the largest American Air Force installation in Asia: 70-year-old Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

While we focus here on asbestos, the toxic cocktail of chemicals and hazardous materials allegedly released, used, burned and buried largely indiscriminately on or near the giant base is mindboggling and may also include lead; polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs; dioxin; petroleum, oil and lubricants; white phosphorous; diesel; arsenic; Vietnam War-era herbicides; perfluorooctane sulfonates or PFOs; raw sewage; jet fuel; hydraulic fluid; fire suppressant foam; and other deadly toxins.

The article paints a picture of haphazard disposal and use of hazardous substances for decades, often without documentation or information being shared with military, civilian and Japanese personnel and residents, and polluting the entire ecosystem of the island, including fresh water, soil, air and sea.

Schools and playing fields were constructed allegedly close to hazardous waste dump areas and during later excavation students, teachers and parents were not informed and continued on with their activities as usual, unprotected from exposure.

Asbestos at Kadena

According to the articles, military and civilian employees were assigned to work duties in crumbling asbestos on the base. Many buildings were heavily contaminated with asbestos, including dining halls, boiler rooms and dormitories. Chunks of asbestos-containing materials were just scattered on lawns.

One disturbing story is of an abandoned hospital used for training exercises in which service members used "axes and chainsaws to breech asbestos-packed doors," which widely spread asbestos-containing dust in a large area.

An article in The Japan Times from 2013 reported about an asbestos-contaminated site that was formerly part of another U.S. base on the island where it is alleged that U.S. officials may have misled Okinawan cleanup workers and exposed them to the asbestos.

A 2005 piece from Japan Update cites an Okinawa Times special report, stating that allegedly "dozens" of former workers on Kadena have died of lung cancer after having worked with asbestos on the base from the 1950s through the 1980s. The workers reportedly performed mechanical work on boilers and hot water systems that used asbestos insulation without proper protective equipment.

Unfortunately, legal remedies for those harmed, whether military, US civilian or Japanese civilian, are less clear since the base is on foreign soil and not in the U.S. Anyone who believes that he or she or a family member may have been harmed by asbestos exposure at Kadena Air Base or another military installation should speak with an attorney as soon as possible about potential legal remedies.

Harm from asbestos exposure may include lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and death.

The personal injury attorneys of Brayton Purcell LLP represent military and civilian victims of asbestos exposure throughout the nation from offices in California, Oregon, Utah and Washington.