Every breath you take

From asbestos to xylene -- what you don't know can hurt you

by Sumiko Oshima

The children were considered lucky when they were admitted a place at the popular Sashigaya public nursery in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward. Little did their parents know what a high price their young ones might have to pay for the privilege.

Two summers ago, in early July 1999, work began to enlarge a second-floor baby-care room adjacent to rooms where dozens of toddlers were being looked after during the day. Because the work site was set off only by a plywood partition, the noise and dust from the renovations filled the whole nursery.

At one point, a room next to the work site became so clouded with white dust that the children tried to run away, forcing staff to chase after them. At other times the children took naps on futon in the same room.

“Despite the disruption, though, no parents opposed the work because we knew many working mothers with babies were waiting to put their children in the nursery,” says Keiko Imai, a university professor whose 2-year-old son was attending the nursery at the time.

A month later, however, the whole nursery was thrown into panic when word got out that part of the workmen’s job involved stripping off fireproof insulation containing 35 percent crocidolite — and that the dust the children and everyone else had been breathing in contained deadly fibers of the mineral commonly called blue asbestos. At first the ward office had failed to mention asbestos when it informed parents and staff about the upcoming renovations, says Fuyushi Nagakura of ASNET, a Tokyo-based citizens’ group campaigning against the use of asbestos. “Then it claimed the work did not involve asbestos. Then finally — after repeated pressure from parents — it admitted what had happened,” he recalls, adding, “There must be hundreds of similar cases.” Imai is incredulous. “Nurseries should be the safest of places,” she says. “I just don’t understand how such sloppiness can occur at a time when society is so conscious about environmental issues.”

The truth is out there

“Sloppiness” is perhaps too mild a term to describe blunders involving asbestos. Crocidolite, amosite (brown asbestos) and crysotile (white asbestos), which when inhaled can lodge deep in airways or lung tissue, are classified by the World Health Organization as “proven carcinogens.” They are associated in particular with lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma, which may not develop until 20-50 years after exposure. Experts also agree there is no safe level of exposure. Nonetheless, use of the first two types was legal in Japan until mid-1995 and, except for spraying, it is still legal to use white asbestos. The government maintains that it has already taken firm action to prevent hazards of occupational health and environmental pollution.

The Industrial Safety and Health Law since 1995 has required any company planning to dismantle or renovate a building to check for the presence of asbestos and to remove friable asbestos (which crumbles easily) to a sealed-off area. Similarly, since 1996 the Air Pollution Control Law has stipulated that any planned demolition or renovation involving the removal of sprayed asbestos must be reported in advance to prefectural authorities. Since 1992, the Waste Disposal and Public Cleaning Law has regulated precisely what can and cannot be done with waste material containing asbestos.

“Asbestos is much more strictly regulated by law than other substances,” said an official at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. “The measures in place should be enough to ensure the safety of workers [whose exposure is typically thousands of times higher than the public's].”

Such hubris was also in evidence at the Environment Ministry, where an official confidently asserted, “Our collected data shows that the current environmental asbestos level is nearly zero.” Both this official complacency, and the laxness that allowed the Bunkyo Ward blunder, are in stark contrast to the acute awareness of the dangers of asbestos that spurred the European Union to agree to implement a total ban on its use in 2005. However, the awful truth is that such attitudes and events here merely mirror the current governmental, media and public perception, which hardly ever focuses on asbestos. Quite simply, dioxin is in; asbestos is out. “Japanese somehow think that the threat of asbestos is already gone,” says ASNET’s Nagakura, “whereas in reality it’s a ticking time bomb.”

Something in the air

But far from defusing its asbestos bomb, Japan last year alone consumed nearly 100,000 tons of the stuff, almost all of it imported, with half coming from Canada. And amazingly enough, consumption the year before that, at 117,000 tons, was almost equal to the total for North America and Europe combined.

Once here, more than 90 percent of the nonflammable mineral, which also insulates against heat and electricity, is processed into construction materials such as roofing shingles, sidings and boards to clad the inside and outside of private houses and other buildings.

“Colorful roofing shingles, which are used instead of traditional tiles, mostly contain 10-15 percent asbestos,” says Nagakura. “Yet few people realize their dream homes may be topped with 400 kg of the deadly chemical.”

If that was where the asbestos stayed, of course, living or working in such buildings would pose virtually no health risk. Once released, though, the airborne fibers are so extremely thin and light that they can easily enter the body without even causing any itchiness.

Of course, the risks of inhaling fibers skyrocket when buildings containing asbestos are demolished or renovated as with the Bunkyo Ward nursery. Although Japan has not set any permissible level for overall atmospheric asbestos, Environment Agency data shows that, if no containment measures are taken, this may exceed 100 fibers per liter around such sites. Even if existing regulations are strictly adhered to, up to 70 fpl may still be released, research by the Tokyo Metropolitan Research Institute for Environmental Protection has shown. This compares with the officially permissible 10 fpl for the perimeter of asbestos-product factories.

But the problem doesn’t stop at and around demolition sites, according to asbestos consultant Kenji Okoshi. He points out that as more than 95 percent of concrete waste is recycled, material containing asbestos is being crushed with all the rest — so releasing more of the deadly particles. “Even the Environment Ministry estimates asbestos discharge will double in the next 10 years,” Okoshi says. “So if the regulations remain as they are, an astronomical number of fibers will be spewed in the air to be inhaled.”

In Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, around 30,000 people a year are already paying the price of their exposure to asbestos — most in the course of their jobs — as they are diagnosed with asbestos-induced lung cancer or malignant mesothelioma. In Western Europe alone, a 1999 study by British epidemiologist Julian Peto, a professor at the University of London, estimated that more than 500,000 people will die of these diseases in the next 35 years. At present, fatalities in Japan are far fewer than in other industrialized countries, with an estimated 1,300 deaths in 1999 from asbestos-related cancer and mesotheliomas. Although this represents a death rate of just 6 per 1 million people — compared with 15 in the United States, 23 in Britain and 25 in Australia — epidemiologists warn this could be just the lull before Japan’s time bomb goes off. “It’s a global asbestos epidemic,” says Ken Takahashi of the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu. “To combat it, asbestos should be banned in all countries.”

Too little, too late

Here, though, that may be a tragic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, since asbestos consumption soared during the nation’s rebuilding period of 1950-1970, reaching peak imports of 350,000 tons in 1974. From then on, between 200,000 and 300,000 tons a year continued to be added to the nation’s stockpile until 1990.

However, this year both Kubota Co. and Matsushita Electric Works Ltd., the country’s largest asbestos-product makers whose roofing shingles are believed to consume about 40 percent of total imports, both decided to stop using it altogether by the end of next year.

Even so, due to the long gestation period for asbestos-related illnesses, this may be far too little, too late to defuse Japan’s time bomb. This fear is only heightened by the fact that it wasn’t until 1974 that the high-risk spraying of cements containing asbestos on building frames and ceilings was banned.

In addition, because buildings put up more than 20 years ago are now being scheduled for demolition in ever-increasing numbers, levels of atmospheric asbestos are bound to rise. According to a government projection, in fact, discharges from dismantling buildings, now some 1,500-2,000 tons a year, are expected to peak in 10-20 years at around 3,000-4,000 tons. For Takahashi, at least, all this adds up to a grim prediction: “Japan will soon catch up with Western countries in the number of victims — and then perhaps outnumber them.” A 1997 booklet titled “Asbestos,” published by the Tokyo Metropolitan Research Institute for Environmental Protection, gave a similarly bleak diagnosis: “The health hazard from asbestos used to be an issue involving only those directly dealing with the chemical. But with a large amount of asbestos products having been manufactured and installed, the chances of the general public being exposed to it are increasing.”

Despite such warnings, campaigners and citizens’ groups — many of whom are calling for an immediate total ban on all new use — claim the current laws and regulations are riddled with loopholes. For instance, many cite the fact that notification under the Air Pollution Control Law is not necessary unless a building’s total floor area exceeds 500 sq. meters and the sprayed asbestos removal area is more than 50 sq. meters. They also claim that as most regulations focus on sprayed asbestos, other asbestos products — many just as friable — are often overlooked. What’s worse, though, according to Sugio Furuya, secretary general of Ban Asbestos Network Japan, is that these inadequate regulations are often either unknown to companies in the field — or are simply ignored.

“Building owners do not know much about asbestos, while construction and demolition companies are keen to curtail costly asbestos-abatement budgets to be competitive,” Furuya says. All this only adds to the worries of those parents who were once so happy to send their children to the Sashigaya nursery. Two years on, some are trying to push the incident out of their minds; others — particularly at this time of year — remain haunted by what happened and what the future may have in store. As one mother, Imai, says, “I simply don’t know what to explain to my son when he gets older.”