JAKARTA - Japanese doctors are stepping up efforts to help Asia’s developing economies stop using asbestos, sharing knowledge bitterly learned in Japan about the serious and fatal illnesses caused by the material that was used in abundance during the postwar economic boom through the 1970s.
Emerging economies continue using the affordable but hazardous silicate minerals “because they are still in the process of development and because the 30- to 50-year latent period of mesothelioma has prevented widespread recognition of future costs,” said Ken Takahashi, a professor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan.
In October, Takahashi led an Asia-Pacific workshop in Jakarta on sound management of industrial chemicals. The workshop was organized by the Asia Asbestos Initiative, a program that Takahashi launched in 2008 in collaboration with the U.N. Environmental Program.
Indonesia remains one of the world’s biggest asbestos users, but public awareness of the risks posed by inhaling the carcinogen is still low.
The country’s largest asbestos product plant, located in the outskirts of Cikarang, West Java, for example, has a disposal site nearby where local residents, including children, frequently scavenge metals to earn a living.
A nongovernmental organization reported four years ago that residents in the area were exposed to the risks of asbestos, sending a shock wave throughout Canada, an exporter of the carcinogenic substance to the Southeast Asian country.
Asia consumes some 70 percent of the asbestos produced in the world and Indonesia is the third-largest consumer after China and India.
Regulations to control the use of asbestos are loose in Indonesia, and effective technologies to detect malignant mesothelial tumors and asbestosis are not yet available.
Although an incident similar to Japan’s asbestos epidemic has yet to occur in Indonesia, asbestos-induced tragedies are occurring “day after day,” said Dimu Pratama, 28, a member of the NGO.
A recent survey at another plant in Indonesia found that about half of the workers and nearby residents are suffering from respiratory difficulties, and Japanese and South Korean doctors discovered asbestosis in three of them.
Siti Kristina, 47, one of the three patients, worked at the plant in Cibinong, also in West Java, for about 20 years, engaging in assignments such as mixing asbestos with her hands.
“Some of my former colleagues are still working,” she said. “Research must continue.”
In Japan, deaths resulting from mesothelioma are increasing sharply now that some 40 years have passed since the high growth period when asbestos was widely used. Asbestos use was banned in 1975, but in 2005, reports revealed health problems found among residents near a Kubota Corp. asbestos plant in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.
For developing countries, the risk of asbestos is still “a fire on the opposite shore as it was for Japan in the past,” Takahashi, 57, said.
Takahashi began studies on asbestos-related diseases in the late 1980s. His stop-asbestos initiative has organized an international meeting of researchers and government officials every year.
But major producers of asbestos, such as Russia and Canada, have kept promoting the consumption of the silica minerals, stressing that chrysotile, the most widely used form of asbestos, causes no hazardous problems if used safely and that alternatives to asbestos are expensive.
Takahashi said that “there is no safe use of asbestos because all varieties of the mineral have been scientifically proven carcinogenic and recognized as such by the World Health Organization.”
Although alternatives are priced at 10 to 15 percent higher, future costs are estimated to be $3 for every $1 worth of asbestos used, he said.
Takahashi’s program is starting to bear fruit in cooperation with the WHO and the International Labor Organization.
In its October meeting in Jakarta, the seventh of its kind, participants heard reports from Vietnam and Thailand on moves for a total ban on the use of asbestos.
Through the program, Takumi Kishimoto, deputy director of the Okayama Rosai Hospital, supports the treatment of asbestos-induced diseases in Mongolia and China as a specialist in the field.
Crocidolite, the most hazardous variety, is still in use in the two countries.
While patients with mesothelioma can live relatively long lives if the disease is found at an early stage, “diagnosis has yet to be improved,” Kishimoto, 62, said.
Koki Inai, a pathologist and professor emeritus at Hiroshima University, examined samples of tissues from 34 people diagnosed as suffering from mesothelioma in Vietnam and found only seven actually had the disease.
“I would like to carry out Internet-based remote diagnosis and educate technicians who make tissue samples, even at my own expense,” Inai, 66, said.