Twenty-eight Japanese have officially been recognized as falling ill from inhaling asbestos while working at U.S. military bases in Okinawa, including 21 who have died, Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry data showed Tuesday.
They represent more than half of the 48 people recognized with asbestos injuries in Okinawa. It is feared there could be more victims among people who have worked at military bases. An ex-worker said they were not provided adequate protective gear or informed of the dangers of asbestos.
Of the 28 workers, 19 were officially recognized in the period through fiscal 2012 as having suffered work-related asbestos hazards. Fourteen suffered lung cancer, nine of whom have died; three suffered asbestosis and have all died; and two suffered mesothelioma, a form of cancer.
There were nine other people certified as asbestos victims inaccordance with a relief act for people ineligible for workers’ compensation because of the statute of limitations.
In some cases, asbestos-related diseases do not surface for several decades. Eight suffered lung cancer and one suffered asbestosis, and all are now dead.
Workers’ compensation certification standards for asbestos were established in 1978 and the relief act came into force in 2006.
People who were officially recognized as asbestos victims were involved in work such as demolition of buildings containing asbestos, spraying of asbestos, waste disposal and collection, and repair and manufacturing of machines.
Lax handling of asbestos has drawn attention in Okinawa. Asbestos was found in former U.S. military sites returned to Japan, and Japanese workers renovated military bases without being notified of the existence of asbestos.
Eizo Yonaha, a former worker who represents the Okinawa chapter of the All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, said workers were forced to work with asbestos with almost no protective equipment until the early 1990s.
“There was also a time when supervising U.S. military personnel never tried to enter the work site. I believe they knew about the danger. The recognized cases are probably the tip of the iceberg. The central and prefectural governments need to step up efforts to identify more victims,” Yonaha said.