By Elizabeth Grossman

After posting yesterday’s story, I began to learn what a hub of chemical-intensive industry the region of Japan most directly affected by the earthquake an tsunami is. Hit with varying degrees of damage from the earthquake and tsunami are more than a dozen major petrochemical plants, most, according to a March 14 Goldman Sachs memo to investors, built in the 1970s. In addition, numerous factories that manufacture agrochemicals, silicon wafers, semiconductors, photovoltaic cells, and other high-tech items have all suffered damage as have warehouses and shipping container depots. Some of these are in coastal areas, some close to where the quake and tsunami hit hardest, near Fukushima and Sendai.

Precise details are now just emerging, but a March 14 story in EE Times, a publication that covers the electronics engineering industry, also reports damage to automotive plants as well as power outages and aftershocks that are affecting operations further from the disaster’s epicenter. Among the plants affected is a Texas Instruments fabricator in Miho that suffered major damage to its “infrastructure systems for delivering chemicals, gases, water and air.” A Canon plant in Utsunomiya that makes specialized lenses “suffered extensive damage,” reports The New York Times.

Although oil refineries and chemical plants may be the obvious sources of potentially hazardous chemical releases, it’s important to remember that silicon wafer and semiconductor production involves use of numerous hazardous chemicals, including flammable and corrosive gases. Even under normal operating conditions, use and storage of these materials poses risks that must be addressed. What is already a difficult job of assessing damage and beginning clean-up and repair – work that involves many obvious potential health and safety hazards – has been made considerably more difficult by not only the physical damage wrought by the earthquake and tsunami but now hazards from nearby nuclear power plants.

As I read through the list of petrochemical plants, silicon wafer and semiconductor plants imperiled by the disaster and watched news of the ongoing nuclear crisis including the plant workers Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan described as “risking their lives to inject water to cool the reactor cores,” I thought of something Paul Anastas (now assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development) said a couple of years ago when explaining how we now manage chemical hazards. “We currently deal with chemical security through guns, guards, and gates rather than by redesigning materials,” said Anastas. “Protective measures against hazards can and will fail. And when they fail, risk goes to the maximum.”

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

Comments

  1. #1 Elaine Schattner, MD
    March 15, 2011

    I’m approaching the limit of my worrying capacity, which I didn’t think possible. Still, thanks for this –

    It’s a public health aspect of the situation that’s under-reported and could influence planning in a future emergency situation.

  2. #2 Ted Smith
    March 15, 2011

    I’ve been worried about the release of hazardous materials from all the high-tech plants there ever since I heard about the earthquake and tsunami. After the 1989 Loma Preita earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, there were serious concerns about toxic chemical releases (and our quake was a 6.9 compared to a 9.0 plus tsunmai). Fortunately, we had recently passed hazardous materials storage ordinance and a toxic gas ordinance which prescribed stricter containment regulations, and many people here believe that the damages were not more severe than they were because of these requirement. I’m not aware that Japan has adopted the toxic gas containment requirements – so I’ve been searching to find information about toxic releases from these electronics plants. I have seen information that many of them were damgages and shut down, so there is no question that there must be serious problems.
    Ted Smith, Founder, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
    Coordinator, International Campaign for Responsible Technolgy
    San Jose, California

Current ye@r *