Suspected poison gas munitions to be salvaged and disposed of

by the Poison Gas Issues Reporting Team

Suspected poison gas munitions should be salvaged and disposed of, a panel of experts concluded on June 22. The panel, commissioned by the Environment Ministry, discussed the problems related to 20 suspected poison gas munitions found in January this year off the coast of Ohkunoshima Island, Hiroshima Prefecture. Regarding these objects, which have been left in the water where they lie, an official of the ministry said, “After consultations with the Cabinet Secretariat, the retrieval operations will start promptly and will hopefully be finished by the end of the year.”

The panel, chaired by Masatoshi Morita, a professor at Ehime University whose main field of expertise is environmental toxicology, includes experts on chemical weapons and medical doctors. Of the 11 members, eight attended the June 22 meeting. They reached the conclusion that, to eliminate the anxiety of local citizens, the objects must be salvaged and their contents examined and identified, then properly disposed of in accordance with the law. The panel also recommended that all 20 objects be recovered instead of conducting a more limited survey.

The members also agreed that the photographed objects, due to their appearance, are likely World War II sneeze gas munitions--so-called “red canisters”--produced by the Imperial Japanese Army. They do not see an immediate concern for safety and believe it unnecessary for special protective diving gear to be worn, to guard against chemicals, during the operations.

The panel meets regularly several times a year in order to discuss the handling of poison gas shells and other munitions discovered in different parts of Japan. Environment Minister Tetsuo Saito attended the June 22 meeting. Yasushi Hongawara, head of the Hiroshima Prefecture Crisis Management Division, observed the meeting and commended the clear course of action. He requested that the salvage operations be launched swiftly.

The Chugoku Shimbun confirmed the existence of another 15 suspected poison gas munitions in the seabed off the coast of the island this month. Concerning further research in other areas around the island, Naoya Tsukamoto, director of the Environment Ministry’s poison gas information center, stated that the initial 20 objects will be examined first, and appropriate measures will then be determined depending on the Cabinet Secretariat’s view of the findings.

Ohkunoshima poison gas manufacturing plant
The plant opened in 1929 as the Tadanoumi Weapons Manufacturing Plant under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Japanese Army’s arsenal and pyrotechnics division. Blister gas, or mustard gas called “Yellow No. 1,” tear gas “Green,” and arsenic-based sneeze gas “Red” were among the products of this plant. According to U.S. Army data, this plant produced 6,616 tons of poison gases.

(Originally published on June 23, 2009)

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