Responsibility for asbestos ills

The Osaka District Court on May 19 ordered the government to pay ¥435 million in compensation to 23 people who worked in asbestos-spinning factories in the Sennan area of Osaka Prefecture from 1939 to 2005. It did not offer compensation to three other plaintiffs, including a resident who lived near the factories.

The ruling is the first to hold the government responsible for failing to prevent exposure to asbestos. The government should refrain from appealing the ruling and instead improve measures to help people who are suffering from asbestos- related illnesses. The ruling is likely to affect similar lawsuits in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kobe.

Asbestos became a major health issue in 2005 when machinery maker Kubota Corp. disclosed that 79 people, including workers at its asbestos-related factory, had died of diseases believed to have been caused by exposure to asbestos. In 2006, a relief law went into force and the production, import and use of asbestos were banned.

The Osaka ruling said that medical knowledge about pulmonary asbestosis had been sufficiently accumulated by 1959 and that the labor minister committed a crime of omission by failing to require the installation of ventilators in asbestos-related workplaces when the pneumoconiosis law was first enacted in 1960. The use of such ventilators did not become obligatory until 1971.

The court also said that the government failed to sufficiently warn people about health damage from asbestos. Although an apparatus to measure the concentration of fine particles of asbestos in the air became available in 1972 and its use became obligatory, the government failed to require factories to report such data to authorities, it said.

Importantly, the court ruled that the primary responsibility to compensate victims rests with the government, not with asbestos-related enterprises.

Since it takes 20 to 40 years for asbestos-related health problems to appear, such illnesses cannot be considered “diseases of the past” yet. Structures built before the use of asbestos was banned are aging and their reconstruction or demolition will increase. Therefore, the government must ensure that sufficient safety precautions are put into place to protect people’s health.