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Experts lambast deputy environment minister for dumping microorganisms into canal

A screen capture shows a Twitter post by Vice-Minister for the Environment Tadahiko Ito dated July 22 saying he dumped EM balls into a canal in the city of Handa, Aichi Prefecture. (Mainichi)

Senior Vice-Minister for the Environment Tadahiko Ito is facing a barrage of criticism after social media posts about dumping "effective microorganisms" (EM), touted as capable of cleaning up dirty water, into a canal.

Ito, a House of Representatives lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, deleted some of his Twitter and Facebook posts after the criticism. EM's usefulness was advocated by a then University of the Ryukyus professor in the 1990s, but then Environment Minister Tamayo Marukawa told the Diet in February 2016 that she was "not aware of any scientific data verifying its effectiveness to purify water." Ito told the Mainichi, "I am embarrassed to tell you that I didn't know about the past response (by the environment minister)."

According to Ito and others, some 1,000 balls of EM were dumped in the Handa Canal in Handa, Aichi Prefecture -- Ito's home constituency -- during a July 22 event.

Izo Sakakibara, a 77-year-old former mayor of Handa and the organizer of the event, said, "The Handa Canal was said to smell of mud. We have dumped EM balls into the canal for several years, hoping to improve the water quality. Now we don't hear about any bad smell."

Shortly after Ito posted about the July 22 EM event, critical comments including, "Don't throw things without scientific evidence into the river," emerged online. Professor Makoto Yamashita of Nagoya University, a specialist in organic and high polymer chemistry, tweeted, "A classic example of the scientific approach being disregarded in Japanese politics."

Yamashita told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Local government studies have shown that EM does not have this capability (to clean up dirty water). The current vice-minister did what he did in ignorance of this fact, thereby giving credence to the claims" about EM's water-cleaning efficacy.

Ito said, "After checking what the environment minister said (in the Diet), I came to think that it is not good to say 'This thing is good.'"

Ito was first elected to the lower house in 2005 and has served as senior vice-minister for the environment since August 2016.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Igarashi, Science & Environment News Department, and Katsushi Shikimori, Nagoya News Center)

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