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People suffering from asbestos-linked diseases and those who lost relatives to such illnesses began filing applications Monday for government financial aid prior to the coming into force next week of a relief law for victims.

The applications were submitted to labor standards inspection offices and other governmental entities nationwide.

The law was passed in the aftermath of revelations starting last June that many workers at a factory in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, had died of asbestos-linked diseases, and that nearby residents, too, had health problems apparently caused by the material. Such woes were said to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Subsequent reports about asbestos-linked health problems prompted the government to prepare the legislation, under which the state will cover medical expenses and treatment fees for the sufferers of asbestos-linked diseases, including mesothelioma, an incurable kind of cancer, and some of the funeral costs for those who died.

Due to demands for swift assistance to those afflicted, the new relief system enters into force without the government fully knowing the extent of the problem, and observers said they were watching to see how many people file applications and how effective the system is.

Relatives of workers who died from asbestos-linked diseases and were unable to file for workers’ compensation because the statute of limitations had run out can now file at their nearest labor standards office.

All other sufferers and next of kin should apply to the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency in Kawasaki or its Osaka office, to one of the 11 regional environmental bureaus nationwide or to certain designated public health centers.

Asbestos is known to cause mesothelioma, lung cancer and other maladies if inhaled. It was used extensively in Japan as an insulation material until the mid-1980s.

When the doors to the ERCA head office in Kawasaki opened at 9 a.m., a 74-year-old man from Kanagawa Prefecture was one of the first to apply. His 76-year-old wife is stricken with mesothelioma.

“My wife did not work in an asbestos-related environment, but was diagnosed (with the disease), and we didn’t know what to do,” he said. “We learned about the new system through the newspaper and are very thankful.”

Environment Minister Yuriko Koike visited the agency Monday, stressing the need to get the word out that the system had been launched, and called on those afflicted to come forward quickly.

If someone is recognized as a sufferer, the benefits will be paid out from the date of application. A sufferer will lose a month’s worth of payments if they do not file by March 31. In addition, from March 27, if someone dies of mesothelioma or asbestos-induced lung cancer without having already applied for aid, their kin will be unable to receive the sympathy compensation or funeral payment.

At a health center in Amagasaki, more than 10 people had submitted applications by noon.

Yuri Ogino, 28, from Osaka who lost her mother to mesothelioma, said that while she was not completely satisfied with the state relief, she did believe it is a start.

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