A government study panel warned in 1980 of the health dangers near asbestos-related facilities and called for concrete steps to prevent the material from spreading in the air, according to government sources.

However, the government introduced no specific measures until 1989, when it started to control airborne asbestos under the air pollution control law.

Some critics say the government’s prolonged inaction may have contributed to the widespread health damage recently made public.

The study panel, under the old Environment Agency, produced a report saying, “It is assessed that families of workers at asbestos-related facilities and people living near such plants are exposed to relatively large amounts of asbestos, and there is a need to promote systematic activities immediately” to deal with the problem.

It said measures should be taken to control the spread of asbestos in the air.

The report specifically cited examples and studies in other countries where residents near asbestos mines and families of employees of firms that produce or use asbestos-related products were found to have developed mesothelioma — an asbestos-related cancer. It noted that “immediate action” is needed in areas near mines, shipyards and asbestos-processing plants in Japan.

The study group, comprised of doctors, minerals experts and researchers of industrial health at the then Labor Ministry, assessed asbestos as an air pollutant in urban areas. In 1977, the Environment Agency started gauging the density of asbestos dust in the air in 55 designated locations throughout the country. An expert committee analyzed the results through 1984 and concluded that asbestos pollution did not pose a problem at that time but the health risk “could expand in the future.”

Following another report in 1984 that called for government action, the agency in 1987 conducted air checks near asbestos-related plants and introduced the measures in 1989 to control airborne asbestos.

Yoshimi Matsui, chief of the ministry’s Air Quality Management Division, said the 1980 report was something of a wrap-up of documents and studies by other parties, and it was probably difficult for the government to take immediate action based on it.

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