Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I spoke to the son of the man who died in or neighborhood. He told us that the doctor mentioned that it was possible that the cancer was caused by heavy metals. The doctor, the head of a hospital nearby, told him that there were dangerous levels of heavy metals in all Japanese water and that this information was being stifled by the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Health in Japan is notoriously corrupt and have probably been under investigation for one thing or another for the last 30 years. I totally and completely don't trust them.

I also once met a toxologist who said that toxologists were coming to Japan to study because Japan was immersed in lots of chemicals that were illegal in other nations and there was a lot they could study.

My neighbor checked his well water for heavy metals and found enough to be a long term health concern. However, he was told that city tap water was even worse.

I don't have much expertise in this area, but it sounds like a good reason to leave Japan long term. I can only image it getting worse. Does anyone know more about this?


I think the first thing to do, if you are worried about this, would be to have your water tested by a professional service. We had this done at our house in Connecticut as it was well-water (it tested fine.)

On the one hand, Japan does have a history of covering up significant environmental concerns. Look at the nuclear power industry and how poorly they have managed the plants in Japan. Look at this ongoing and growing asbestos problem. Look at what was uncovered after the Kobe quake (buildings not built to code, etc.) I think this has something to do with tatemae, and is built-in to the culture, but there's coverups all over the world. Hiding the bad news is not specifically Japanese behavior :)

Also, there's been a lot of articles about this but bottled water is also basically not regulated and no one knows what is in bottled water. I use a filter at home

All of that being said, remember that the Japanese are the longest-living people on earth. Even in the face of a large smoking population. Thus, environmental concerns can't be terrible at a national-scale. Of course that does not address individual or local concerns.

Interesting. It would make the recent asbestos news just the tip of the iceburg. The reactions of 'what? asbestos is bad?' were quite shocking to hear 20 years after the rest of the world knew about it. And ironicaly, I just walked past a demolition site of an old shop building and guess what I saw...asbestos ceiling tiles folded and cracked amidst the wreckage.

I'd think that heavy metal poisoning would show up pretty quickly in children though. Life expectancy numbers would probably drop quickly as well. Heavy metals usually don't show up overnight so if this is a problem it should've been a problem for a while now.

Keep in mind also that Japanese eat the most tuna of anyone in the world and tuna has (aside from shark) probably the highest methylmercury of any food. So it would be no shock to see that average mercury levels in Japanese were higher than those in other countries. If the water was bad too, I think it'd show up quickly.

And Japan still has the most vibrant old people I've ever seen...some claim that green tea and miso works to counteract heavy metals.

It's probably best to look at the big picture. Overall, Japanese people have a longer life span than in most other countries on earth.

anon has a good point re: tuna. Because heavy metals bio-accumulate in seafood, the top predator fish (which include tuna) have the heaviest mercury levels. But you'd have to eat a lot of it for it to be a concern.

Some American obstetricians have recommended to their pregnant patients not to eat tuna during pregnancy. I haven't asked about this in Japan but I doubt if it's a concern.

What’s the relation of this discussion to the historic Minimata poisonings? It isn’t clear from your post whether you’re musing about Japan just happens to flow with heavy-metal-contaminated water, or about Japanese industrial waste practices.

Akachan Honpo, a Japanese chain of baby / children department stores, has an article taped up in the store telling women to go easy on the sashimi (i can't remember if they just mentioned tuna, or said sea fish in general).

The Ministry of Health actually does have recommendations for pregnant women on fish consumption:

Ironically though they tell you to limit fish like Shark to once a week or less and have no mention of tuna. But if you look at their table below, you'll see that many kinds of tuna has a higher average amount of mercury.

I guess the tuna lobby is more powerful than the shark lobby.

And I don't think it takes that much tuna to make a big difference. It's just an anecdote but check out this piece reprinted from the WSJ last month. Basically it says that a ten year old eating 3-6 ounces of canned tuna per day was consuming more than 60 times the EPA's recommendation for a safe amount of mercury.

gosh, and I thought I can go there in the future to stay in japan for a couple of years. that is not very good news. :(

The effect on older Japanese is going to be very different to the effect on younger Japanese. The older people grew up in a less toxic pre-war environment. The current generation has been exposed to the metals since before birth.

I guess you'd better buy a filtration system ...

Don't worry be happy, buy a filtration system and give your Minister of Health a kick in his corrupt ass!

info: english /


Definitely get a filter for your taps at home. Replace it monthly, or quarterly. You may want to spend some money on filtration system if your really paranoid, but Britta water filters pitchers are really good. Get one and put in your fridge, they are cheap about 2-3 thousand yen. Avoid drinking direct tap water in Tokyo at least. Mercury is in a lot of fish nowadays, causes insanity, amongst other things. Heavy metals are pretty bad for you. I would be interested to know more myself.

According to the book "Dogs and Demons", environmental regulation in Japan has been extreme lax, allowing it to ramp up it's economy. Personally I assume the water here is pretty bad, add in the regular health hazards of a densely populated urban area, and well...

Okinawa seems nice, and people live the longest there. Thank god the Japanese diet is healthy, and people are hyper-hygenic.

We can look forward to this in the US now that the enviromental laws have been gutted by Bush.

Ask yourself "Is litigation possible?"
One of the good/bad things about the US justice system is the litigation happy public.

I wouldn't bother on a Britta filter if you are trying to get rid of heavy metals.

Regarding mercury consumption & fish. As a huge fan of tuna and all things raw I was a little horrified to find this site:

Given the levels of mercury in fish caught today, it would seem it doesn't take much at all to put you over the accepted "safe" levels.

First they take away my my tuna? Sheesh. One can't live on natto alone.

"One of the good/bad things about the US justice system is the litigation happy public."

Nope since the Bush EPA settled all of their cases it makes it impossible to sue for toxic polution.

Wow, Jake. Arguing about the environment is easy when you just make stuff up. Here, let me try: George W. Bush has the best environmental record of any president in US HIstory! Not even remotely true, but hey, what's good for the goose...

Anyway - does the Brita filter work on heavy metals? I wouldn't think so, but I don't know.

I know scientists are working on solutions.

Once someone finds a way to make money cleaning the water in Japan, it will get done. A nice side effect may be that the water will be cleaner.

Well, you can get these remote osmosis units that deal with the heavy metals. (Obviously, with any filter system you have to remember that the thing you are trying to remove will inevitably build up to some degree within the filter itself).

It sounds like there's a market in Japan for good reverse osmosis units ... they're pretty commonplace in Europe though.


I wish I made this up. I really wish I did but the future generation of Americans are going to be drink more toxins thanks to Bush.

Most filters just deal with large particulate matter. I don't know exactly how it's done in the home, but in the lab if you need the chelate heavy metals, you use EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid).

Me? If it doesn't kill you quickly, it probably makes you stronger...

There was a good article in the Daily Yomiuri: "New water changing our drinking habits". [URL:]

Irrespective of which part of earth we live in, I think we should be very careful while drinking water. Safe and healthy drinking water should not become a luxury.

Joi - I recommend using a water distiller at home, and adding cilantro to your diet (natural way to remove heavy metals from your tissues).

Hope that helps!


Joi, this is a very serious concern, especially if you and your wife ever plan on having children.

That said, its also a problem that the entire industrialized world is living with, in various degrees. I suspect that we are just beginning to realize just how much they have shaped and continue to shape our world.

Especially endocrine disruptors like the chemicals found in plasticizers. Toxics aren't just heavy metals, there are serious issues with lots of other environmental chemicals and even 'natural' chemicals in the environment like the mycotoxins produced by common molds.. (all around us)

Keeping a sense of perspective, I'd try to find out all you can about your neighbor's illness and anything else that pops into your infosphere. Especially, look into the history of your neighborhood and town, any data available on its water supply and air, and also try to reduce or eliminate your exposure to any toxics in the home. (There are more of these than many of us realize.) Don't trust governments and labels to tell you things.. they won't. Toxics are a political hot potato because the impact of them has always fallen heaviest on the poor.


Joi, it also wouldn't hurt to start taking, regularly, some of the nutrients that have clearly proven to be of help in reducing the most common, general effects of toxics, in the broadest sense. In addition to a good, *modern* muti-vitamin/mineral formula, I'd also at the very least, take alpha-lipoic acid - twice a day , n-acetyl-cysteine - also twice, selenium, zinc and garlic (which contains allicin) plus supplemental Vitamins C and E in high doses...


The first two, especially, are amazing in the things they protect your body against.. really.. The list is long..

Since you're living in Japan and I'm sure, get your fair share of fish, I'd be very concerned about mercury and get a hair test for it..

Some other supplements I'd also look into taking (even though they might be less available) are idebenone and piracetam...

I hope I haven't scared you! But we all should be a bit scared because some of this stuff is very scary.. In particular, the implications for the poor around the world.. as they tend to live in the areas highest in toxics. Toxics are also lowering the average age people go into puberty.. by years in some places..

And reducing fertility as they can mimic estrogen... Do a search for 'endocrine disruptors'

But they are everywhere on Earth.. man-made chemicals have even been found in animals bodies in Antarctica.. so we need to change our habits, not simply try to flee..

In this, Europe is leading the way..

If you are interested in a medical perspective on these issues, you may want to check out the NIH-sponsored "Environmental Health Perspectives" journal web site..


Jake, with all due respect, man, and I do mean that sincerely - Come on!

"Environmental Media Services" is a shill group for the environmental lobby run wholly out of a DC PR firm. Now, it's fine if you're an environmentalist and you hate everything that GWB has done, but don't quote this propaganda as scientific fact.

Every government action can be interpreted five different ways and has loads of unintended consequences. The net effect of GWB's actions IS probably a loosening of environmental regulations. Am I saying that GWB is the environment's best friend? Absolutely not. I'm just saying - he's not force feeding baby seals radioactive mercury. After 8 years of GWB, the US will still have some of the cleanest air and water in the world.

These issues are not as simple as radicals on both ends would have us believe.

Oh right environmental science is now propaganda in Bush world where black is white. Oh don't mind me I am only the son of an environmental chemist what would I know about environmental science and the gutting of the EPA.

According to the March of Dimes there is going to be new generations of Americans to suffer developmental illnesses because of the Bush EPA's gutting of pollution protection laws. Our kids and grandkids are going to have brain killing toxins in their food, air and water thanks to George W Bush and his friends in the coal industry. That is sure compassionate conservatism. So why does George Bush hate babies?

Of course what would long haired hippies at the March of Dimes know about babies.

March of Dimes Urges EPA to Cut Mercury Emissions
Mercury Contamination Continues to Be a Serious Health Hazard to Pregnant Women and Babies

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y., APRIL 15, 2004 – The March of Dimes is urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw its current proposal on mercury emissions from coal-powered utility units and replace it with a more stringent set of guidelines to be implemented as quickly as possible. Industrial mercury is a major source of environmental mercury contamination that the March of Dimes says seriously threatens the health of America’s mothers and babies.

If you're really concerned, ask your doctor to have a lab do a blood screen for heavy metals. There are hair tests, and some evidence that they may provide historical information on absorption of certain metals, but there is debate as to their accuracy. Blood lead levels, in particular, are easy to check.

I don't know if you can do it in Japan, but in the U.S. a number of labs, such as Quest diagnostics have started programs where individual customers may order a wide variety of diagnostic tests, in some cases without any doctor's order. They do provide a doctor to assist with interpretation of the results.

I have investigated this because I have several different hobbies that could possibly result in my exposure to significant amounts of environmental lead. I have decided to keep an eye on my personal uptake. It's a small investment if you are actually in an at-risk group.

Jake, this will be my last post here because I doubt Joi is interested in having a political flame war on his site.

I'm going to go completely offtopic here and take the opportunity to try to raise the level of debate a tad. I will concede to you the fact that Republicans are generally worse on the environment than the Democrats. But I don't really care about that argument.

Oh right environmental science is now propaganda in Bush world where black is white.

The worst mistake liberals are making and continue to make is this incoherent hatred of GWB and conservatives. If you ever want to win, you and your compatriots are going to have to make a POSITIVE case for change, instead of this reflexive demonization of everything to do with Republicans and the President.

We may be wrong, but we're not evil. And until you can tell the difference, the voters are not going to trust you. Let me tell you why. I just spent the last hour playing with my two-year-old son. I love him more than life itself. Now, do you imagine I want to expose him to heavy metals? Do I want to expose my unborn nephew to environmental mercury? Am I glad my great-aunt died of asbestos-induced mesothelioma? Of course not!

The American electorate, in its wisdom, seems to understand that neither side is inherently evil. Conservatives don't want to poison children, enslave women, and make the US into some Chriso-fascist utopia. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you will be able to capture the votes of the American electorate.

Neither are the issues as simple as these single-issue folks would have us believe. Let's take mercury, specifically coal, as an example. Because of extremely poor planning for the last fifty years, US energy policy is a disaster. We can't shut down coal production for two reasons. First, it is vital to the economy of several poor states - people who have no other prospects often work in the coal industry. Second, coal is a vital part of our energy profile. Without it, we would face severe energy shortages, especially in the winter.

So when making decisions about coal policy, lawmakers have to think about a lot about environmental mercury, but not JUST mercury. They have to think about all of the poor folks who work in the coal industry. What would become of them without coal? What about the people who couldn't afford to heat their homes if the price of fuel oil went up 100%? Not to mention the cost of electricity to cool homes. How many people would die from exposure? Would more people be affected by this? Where's the balance?

And this issue isn't a Republican issue either, just ask Robert C. "Pork barrel" Byrd if you don't believe me.

I don't pretend this argument is definitive, nor do I want to defend the coal industry. I just want to illustrate that every environmental decision, and every political decision, for that matter, has lots of components, and lots of effects, intended and unintended. Single-issue interest groups like to simplify these issues and demonize their opponents because that's the easiest way to raise cash and make points.

The PERFECT example of this problem is nuclear power. One reason we have such a deplorable dependence on fossil fuels is environmentalists' reflexive and irrational opposition to nuclear power, even modern, extremely safe nuclear power. By not exploring these issues rationally, we do ourselves a great disservice.

But YOU shouldn't fall for this single-issue insanity. You're smart - you should know better. Because the only way you're going to advance your cause is by making coherent, rational arguments and refrain completely from EVER using the phrase "Chimpy McHitler."

There's a lot more I want to say - and I may on my own blog. Please feel free to continue the argument there. ;-)

BTW, this has been an very interesting conversation. I haven't chimed in because I am so ignorant on the topic. Something I must fix it appears.

i dunno, but since I came to japan, my a LOT of my hair has fallen (and I'm just 23!). The same thing has happened to other Filipinos. I'm not sure though if it's the stress or the water.

Funny how Dan Lovejoy can't spin the March of Dimes research and has to change the subject and try to filibuster.

I assure you I am eminently capable of spinning the MOD "research." (See, I did a little right there. ;-)

If you'll read my post carefully, you'll see that I essentially conceded your point in an attempt to raise the level of dialogue.

I'm sorry but unsurprised that you can't, or won't, go there.

Ah, back on the topic...

Here's a link that describes what the Brita filter removes:

So, Joi Ito's conclusion is... ?

It doesn't sound like I can easily filter the heavy metals. Not sure WHAT to do. hmm...

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