Recent revelations that hundreds of workers at firms across Japan have died from asbestos-linked diseases over the past few decades have raised questions about whether the health risks of the unburnable mineral were duly recognized by the government and businesses.

Experts warn that the deaths reported so far are just the tip of the iceberg, and that the government’s delay in fully banning asbestos unnecessarily exposed a greater segment of the population to the toxic fibers.

The flurry of announcements began on June 29, when major machinery maker Kubota Corp. said 79 people who worked at its plants had died of asbestos-related diseases between 1978 and 2004. Kubota also said three residents who lived near a now-defunct factory in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, were sick and that the wife of a factory employee had also died.

According to Kyodo News, as of Friday 49 firms had reported 490 deaths involving its workers, their family members or residents who lived near its asbestos factories.

But the initial public shock is over, and is gradually turning into demands to know what happened.

On Wednesday, the government acknowledged that it had been aware, at least by 1976, that asbestos was a health hazard not just to workers, but also their families and local residents. The labor ministry issued a circular in May that year citing examples of sufferers in Britain, but the government took no active steps to correct the problem.

“(The government) committed an irreparable act by not following up (on the circular) and thinking of (the damage) only within the narrow framework of workers’ compensation,” Senior Vice Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hiroyoshi Nishi told a Diet committee.

Kubota came forward with its findings after residents in Amagasaki asked for information on asbestos-related health problems at its facilities, according to Sugio Furuya, secretary general of Ban Asbestos Network Japan, an umbrella body of citizens’ groups.

“The residents had been alone in their anxiety (over their health), but discovered that there were others similarly affected” around November, Furuya explained. “Kubota took the (disclosure) action not suddenly or voluntarily, but because the residents dared to ask.”

Furuya speculates that Kubota’s announcement prompted other companies to disclose asbestos problems as well.

Asbestos, a fibrous mineral, is used in a variety of construction materials to make buildings stronger, better insulated and fire-resistant. Old buildings being torn down thus pose an acute risk for construction crews. In Japan, about 300,000 tons of asbestos was imported annually from around 1970 to 1990, according to Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry figures.

But scientific studies have shown asbestos dust causes such diseases as lung cancer and mesothelioma — an incurable disease that causes malignant tumors to grow in the lining of the abdominal cavity or the pleura, a sac lining the chest.

In 1971, the government ordered firms using the substance to take safety measures, including installing ventilators and conducting regular health checks.

In 1986, the International Labor Organization adopted the Convention concerning Safety in the Use of Asbestos, which said countries should ban crocidolite, or blue asbestos.

However, Japan did not prohibit the use of crocidolite and amosite, a brown asbestos, until 1995. Both are viewed as especially toxic. It wasn’t until last October that legal revisions basically banning asbestos use finally took effect.

Health minister Hidehisa Otsuji said Japan has been in sync with the international trend in dealing with the health risks of asbestos.

“My basic understanding is that our country was not especially slow in (introducing) measures to counter the risks,” Otsuji told a news conference last week.

But Furuya of Ban Asbestos Network Japan said many European countries basically banned asbestos in the 1980s or early 1990s because they found it impossible to use safely. In 1999, the European Union decided to prohibit all asbestos use by January this year.

Attracted by its low cost and good properties, Japanese industry did not voluntarily give up asbestos. And in the end, those in power dragged their feet in implementing a full ban, Furuya said.

“The government did not face the serious problems caused by asbestos and did not try to prohibit its use,” he said, figuring the delay of a full ban probably exposed greater numbers of people.

Amid the furor, the Environment Ministry has called on the governors and mayors of major cities to report on the density of airborne asbestos around related facilities if the data are available, or if they have been given such information from companies.

But company-supplied data may not be accurate or objective enough to determine the real extent of the problem, according to Ken Takahashi, a professor in the environmental epidemiology department at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu.

“The government itself should spearhead research on the health hazards caused by asbestos” through such means as interviewing former employees of asbestos-related firms, he said.

Although people suffering from asbestos-linked diseases should be given both swift medical care and workers’ compensation, the number of workers who have applied for help is extremely low, Takahashi said.

Experts of mesothelioma worldwide agree that around 70 percent to 80 percent of people who develop mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos, he said. In Japan, however, only about 10 percent of the victims receive workers’ compensation.

In contrast, about 70 percent to 80 percent of those in Finland, for example, receive the insurance if they develop the disease, he said.

One likely reason for the low rate in Japan, Takahashi said, is that many workers did not know or forgot they were exposed to asbestos and are unaware their suffering may be linked to the mineral. Mesothelioma has an incubation period ranging from 25 to 40 years, and decades may pass before an actual diagnosis is made.

This also is an obstacle for relatives of sufferers, because they must apply for workers’ compensation within five years of a victim’s death.

Takahashi said both the government and companies need to remind those who came into contact with asbestos of the risks and the need to get their health checked.

Given the lengthy incubation period and the delay of a full ban, it is highly possible Japan will be beset with mesothelioma woes longer than its Western counterparts, experts say.

“Western countries will likely see their asbestos-related cancer cases peak around 2030,” Furuya predicted, adding that in Japan, the number will probably continue to rise.

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