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Spurred into action following a surge in reports of asbestos-linked deaths across the country, the government last week unveiled a package of steps designed to better deal with the carcinogenic substance.

However, contrary to the government’s underscoring of the swiftness of its compilation, critics say the package comes up short on specific measures.

When the package was unveiled Friday, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hidehisa Otsuji stressed that the government would consider, among other things, offering compensation to victims, including the possibility of drafting special legislation.

A high-ranking health ministry official, meanwhile, said the “government as a whole did fairly well” in drawing up the package of measures — a result of brainstorming by officials from seven ministries and agencies.

While some observers acknowledge that the steps show government officials are aware they were slow to respond to the asbestos threat, critics say the government action is merely a “last-minute” effort tantamount to closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Asbestos, once widely used for insulation and fire-proofing, was identified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 1980. Some predictions say as many as 100,000 people in Japan will develop mesothelioma, a rare from of cancer caused by asbestos exposure, in the next four decades years or so.

But the new measures fail to stipulate how the government intends to track down asbestos victims and what action it will take concerning the demolition of buildings that contain asbestos.

The package gives the impression officials have shored up existing asbestos control measures, but in fact the government has put on the back burner such key issues as whether to draft compensation legislation or whether it will determine what each ministry and agency did in the past to address the problem.

Officials moved into high gear following reports at the end of June that 79 workers of major machinery maker Kubota Corp. were found to have died of asbestos-related illnesses, and that some victims had been living near the company’s factories.

“This past month, we were so busy working on the measures that we hardly had time to sleep,” one official said.

Explaining why they worked so hard, a senior health ministry official said, “It’s probably the (specter of) an election.

“If the House of Representatives were to be dissolved for an election depending on the fate of postal privatization bills (currently before the Diet), the government cannot afford to lose points on the asbestos issue,” the official said.

Asbestos-linked diseases have not only affected workers but also residents who live near factories.

There are growing calls for compensating these victims in the same way as workers, who are eligible for workers’ compensation, but no decision has been made.

At a Lower House committee meeting July 20, Vice Environment Minister Hiroshi Takano took a cautious stance on expanding compensation, saying the government must examine carefully whether these residents should be treated as pollution victims.

Some Environment Ministry officials believe the health damage has been restricted to residents near production facilities using asbestos and workers’ families, and therefore it is not a widespread pollution issue.

They added that the matter should be handled by other entities, including the health ministry.

The health ministry, for its part, is taking a different tack.

Although senior vice health minister Hiroyoshi Nishi told the Diet his ministry made a “decisive mistake” in not following up on a circular it issued in 1976 concerning the possibility that residents could be exposed to asbestos, many officials said the ministry could not actively address the matter because the old Ministry of International Trade and Industry had more power in those days.

Numerous members of the National Federation of Construction Workers’ Unions suffer from asbestos-related illnesses. It started working out measures to help them in 1986.

It has achieved some positive results in tracking down sufferers with the inclusion of asbestos-linked diseases in national health insurance bills.

But the head of the federation’s labor affairs, Hajime Miyamoto, said, “The number we spotted may only be about half the number of members who should be recognized (as sufferers).”

There is also the key problem of preventing asbestos dust from spreading when buildings are torn down.

Regulations went into effect Monday that require demolition companies to notify officials in advance about destroying buildings containing asbestos and preventing the dispersion of asbestos dust. But these firms say that in many cases, they do not know which materials contain asbestos.

The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry is asking prefectural governments to check buildings, including apartments, for asbestos use.

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