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The government will draft a law outlining compensation for victims of asbestos-related illnesses, including those who lived near asbestos-linked factories and the families of those who worked with the unburnable material, the Cabinet decided Friday.

The government aims to submit the bill to the Diet in January, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said in a press conference.

The legal step is needed because the government has conceded it didn’t do enough to protect people against asbestos, even though it was warned by international experts that it could cause cancer as far back as 1972, he indicated.

“There is room for us to learn lessons because collaboration among ministries and agencies was not necessarily sufficient,” the government’s top spokesman reckoned.

The then Environment Agency, now the Environment Ministry, failed to put asbestos under the auspices of the Air Pollution Control Law until 1989, because it was not fully aware of the need to take countermeasures and fully deal with the problem, the government claimed.

Even after 1989, Japan still allowed the fireproof material to be used in a range of products for which no suitable alternatives could be found.

It was not until this summer, when hundreds of asbestos-linked deaths surfaced and were widely reported by the media, that the health ministry announced a plan to slap a blanket ban on asbestos use by 2008.

The government later said it would ban the remaining use of asbestos as soon as possible.

Friday’s meeting was the second the nine Cabinet ministers have held since the asbestos fiasco started snowballing in June.

Since then, several companies have acknowledged that large numbers of employees probably died due to exposure to asbestos fiber.

The legislation will cover “without a gap” those people currently ineligible for compensation under current compensation laws for industrial accidents and pollution-caused health hazards, government officials said.

The details will be worked out by the end of next month, they said.

The government had recognized 743 workers at 483 workplaces as asbestos victims under the workers’ accident compensation insurance system by fiscal 2004. Of that group, 604 have since died.

The asbestos debacle first came to light in late June, when machinery maker Kubota Corp. said 79 of its employees had died of illnesses believed linked to asbestos. The nine Cabinet ministers met in late July.

Kubota also said family members of employees and residents near the factories had developed such illnesses, setting off a flurry of similar announcements by other companies.

Since asbestos-related health problems often do not occur until more than 30 years after exposure, many former asbestos workers are ineligible for compensation under current law due to statutes of limitation.

But such employees are expected to be covered under the new law.

“We need to reflect on some points in a straightforward manner. I believe there were problems such as (bureaucrats) tending to protect their own turf and to compartmentalize administration services,” Environment Minister Yuriko Koike told a news conference after the meeting.

Triple budget sought

The health ministry is asking the Finance Ministry to triple its budget for asbestos problems to 1.6 billion yen in fiscal 2006.

The sum requested by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is three times larger than the initial budget for fiscal 2005 and includes 34 million yen for training doctors to improve their ability to detect mesothelioma and other asbestos-linked diseases.

The request for the year beginning next April 1 also includes 750 million yen for measures to prevent asbestos pollution during demolition work and 210 million yen for conducting health checks for workers who have handled asbestos in the past.

A threefold budget jump for handling problems involving chemical products is unprecedented, a health ministry official said.

“The latest request highlights the importance the ministry attaches to taking asbestos steps amid increasing public concerns over the issue,” the official said.

Nearly 400 employees and contract workers at 27 makers of asbestos products were reported in late July to have died from asbestos-linked diseases.

Some experts predict about 100,000 cases of mesothelioma will emerge in the next 40 years.

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