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Long-ignored asbestos time bomb ticking in Japan

July 15, 2005

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – A surge in the number of reported
Japanese deaths linked to asbestos some 25 years after the
first world health warnings has sparked accusations of
government negligence over its policies toward the
cancer-causing material.

Media have been filled with revelations of asbestos-related
deaths and warnings of more to come in the two weeks since farm
equipment maker Kubota Corp. said 79 former employees may have
died of such illnesses over several decades.

Health Ministry data show that nearly 900 people died from
mesothelioma, a lethal cancer of the chest and abdominal
cavities caused mainly by asbestos exposure, in 2003 alone.

The Trade Ministry announced on Friday that a survey of 89
companies found that 374 employees have died of
asbestos-related illnesses over decades and 88 are being
treated.

The situation, experts say, echoes a 1990s blood products
scandal in which thousands were infected with HIV due to a
delay in banning unheated blood products, despite knowing their
risks.

“Japan’s asbestos policy is far behind that of other
developed nations,” said Fuyushi Nagakura, director of the
Asbestos Center, a group that supports patients with
asbestos-linked illnesses.

“The national government is scrambling to respond after
things have already happened, which is a bit similar to their
response to the AIDS blood scandal.”

Asbestos, used collectively to refer to a group of fibrous
minerals long used as fire retardants, was identified as a
carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 1980, and new
uses of it were banned in the United States in 1989.

Japan, however, did not ban the two most toxic kinds of
asbestos until 1995, although their use had tapered off over
the previous few decades.

The use of all types of asbestos in construction was not
banned until last year, and it was only last week, amid the
furor, that the government moved to ban all uses of asbestos -
from 2008.

Kubota’s disclosure of its employees’ deaths as well as the
fact that three residents living near a now-closed plant were
ill prompted other firms to report asbestos-linked deaths among
their employees and, in some cases, the workers’ family
members.

PUBLIC RISK

Among those were housewives thought to have become ill
after years of washing asbestos dust off their husbands’
clothing, according to media reports.

The dangers are not limited to workers at factories where
asbestos was used.

Experts warn the public is also at risk from millions of
older buildings, including schools, where asbestos was used
extensively in construction in a country where fire prevention
has long been a priority because of its densely populated
cities.

“For the sake of convenience, asbestos was overused in
Japan,” said Hirotada Hirose, a professor of disaster risk
psychology at Tokyo Women’s Christian University.

“It’s a potential environmental disaster.”

A health ministry official said the ministry had been aware
of the WHO warnings but “technical difficulties” had in many
cases prevented the use of alternatives.

“It’s difficult to use many of these other materials in
Japan. We need to verify for ourselves whether they are truly
safe,” he said.

The first symptoms of mesothelioma do not appear until 20
to 40 years from the time of exposure, meaning that more
patients may well emerge in coming years.

The number of workers’ compensation claims awarded to
patients for lung cancer and mesothelioma caused by asbestos
has been steadily rising since 1980 and hit 663 in 2003, nearly
half of them since 2000 alone.

“Japan banned the two most dangerous kinds of asbestos in
1995, which the EU banned only a bit earlier, and the entire EU
has only banned all asbestos products this year,” the health
ministry official said. “So I don’t think we can say Japan’s
government is responding all that slowly.”

Hirose agreed that, in terms of laws actually on the books,
Japan does not come off that badly. But he warned that many of
the existing laws, including one mandating greater asbestos
controls during building demolition that just came into force
on July 1, are toothless and full of loopholes.

“Japan is careful about natural disasters, but with
man-made things like this, it can be incredibly thick,” he
said.

“If the new law is followed, there may not be that much
trouble. But I think the asbestos problem will only increase.”




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