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Friday, Dec. 17, 2004

'Rotten eggs' to plague Miyake returnees

Staff writer

MIYAKE ISLAND -- The air reeked in the Miike district one morning last week as Mount Oyama spewed sulfur dioxide -- an event that has continued since its eruptions started in July 2000.

Miike is one of two districts on Miyake where islanders will be banned from living -- even when the all-out evacuation order issued in September 2000 is lifted in February. Including the area around the volcano, about 45 percent of the island will be inhabitable.

When the average amount of sulfur dioxide measured in a five-minute period -- Miyake's benchmark -- rises to 2 parts per million or higher, the village issues a "caution" alert. New rules introduced in October state that people must put on gas masks or stay indoors during such times.

If gas levels hit 5 ppm or higher, a "warning" alert is issued, and people must put on gas masks and move to unaffected areas or shelters equipped with sulfur filters. Sulfur dioxide has a distinctive "rotten egg" smell.

There has only been one warning issued -- in Miike -- but officials admit other districts could be vulnerable, depending on wind conditions. Officials are now redoubling their efforts to make the island as safe as possible for Miyake's returning inhabitants.

On Dec. 6, about 100 people, including construction workers and postal employees, took part in an evacuation drill in the Izu and Kamitsuki districts.

At 6:30 p.m., a warning that sulfur dioxide levels had exceeded 5 ppm was announced through the public address system. At one inn, the owner and 13 workers staying there donned gas masks before driving to a nearby shelter under police instructions.

Police then visited the buildings in the area to ensure no one had been left behind, before reporting to officials at around 7 p.m.

The village said it would hold similar drills after the islanders return.

Gas levels are being monitored around the clock at 14 locations on the island, which has 19 public facilities and six inns with desulfurizers. Village officials said both visitors and residents, including schoolchildren, will be required to carry gas masks at all times on the island.

Despite such precautions, life on Miyake will never be completely safe for those with certain diseases.

Seibu Mochizuki, professor of the cardiology division at Jikei University in Tokyo and one of the doctors advising the village on health issues, said masks can't completely shut out the gas. He warned that high sulfur dioxide levels could irritate the nose and throat and induce coughing. Extended exposure could also trigger or worsen symptoms of angina, he said.

For people suffering from angina, high blood pressure, or respiratory ailments such as asthma, even gas levels below 5 ppm are dangerous, he said. The average annual per-hour level of sulfur dioxide should be 0.04 ppm or lower to ensure symptoms don't worsen, the doctor said.

But the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said gas levels exceeding an average 0.04 ppm per hour were detected for limited periods in Miyake districts already declared safe.

Seiki Kikuchi, a village official in charge of handling the islanders' return, said ensuring safety is a major challenge for administrators.

"When the villagers return, they will have to live with the volcanic gas," Kikuchi said during the evacuation drill. "If they want to protect their health, it is imperative they follow safety rules."

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