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Health problems linked to asbestos, which was used in large quantities as heat-insulation material for buildings during the period of Japan’s high economic growth, are spreading among workers who inhaled the substance in the past. One enterprise after another has released lists of workers who have died of, or are now receiving treatment for, asbestos-linked diseases, gripping many in the nation with fear. Among the dead are the wife of a worker who handled asbestos on the job and people who lived near an asbestos-related factory.

The fear is exacerbated by the fact that the incubation period of asbestos-caused diseases is 20 to 40 years. It is so long that inhalation of asbestos is ominously said to trigger a “quiet time bomb.” Nearly 400 people at some 30 businesses are reported to have died of diseases linked to asbestos inhalation, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, which is a cancerous tumor in the pleura or the peritoneum. The central and local governments and enterprises must do their utmost to understand the scope of the situation and work out necessary measures.

Asbestos, a mineral that exists in the form of threadlike fibers, neither burns nor conducts heat or electricity, and is resistant to acids and alkalis. Because of these characteristics, a large amount of asbestos was used in Japan for fireproofing, heat insulation and friction resistance. Used in metal-mesh grills for broiling fish, toasters, vehicular brakes and city water pipes, or mixed with cement or sprayed onto walls and ceilings, asbestos has existed near ordinary citizens.

In 1974, Japan imported 350,000 tons of asbestos — a peak amount. Until 1990, the annual imported amount stood at about 300,000 tons. It began declining at a fast pace thereafter, to 43,000 tons in 2002 and to 8,000 tons in 2004. This year’s imported amount is expected to be just several dozen tons.

It was only in 1995 that the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry banned the production and use of highly poisonous brown and blue asbestos. In October 2004, the ministry banned the use of white asbestos, whose carcinogenic nature is said to be weak. The use of asbestos is still allowed in products for which suitable substitutes have not been found, such as gaskets, insulation boards for switchboards, sealing material for chemical plants, and some industrial cords and cloths. Last week the ministry decided to impose a total ban by 2008.

Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), seemed to express a popular sentiment when he said, “Having seen (the symptoms) appearing as many as 20 years later, I have a feeling that Japanese authorities were slow in calling people’s attention (to the danger).”

The diameter of a single thread of asbestos is about one-thousandth of one millimeter. It may stick in a lung cell and stay there for a long time. By continuously causing irritation, it can lead to diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, which is fibrosis of the lung leading to lower respiratory function. By fiscal 2003, 663 people had been designated as labor-accident cases in which asbestos was believed to have caused lung cancer or mesothelioma. The victims were from various occupations — construction, manufacturing, welding, plumbing, shipbuilding, etc.

A sharp increase in the number of such designations in and after the late 1990s testifies to the long incubation time of asbestos-linked diseases before they manifest themselves. The fear is especially strong among workers who handled asbestos, their family members, people living near asbestos-related factories and construction workers.

The central and local governments, as well as enterprises, are carrying out health checks. Additional measures should be taken to deal with workers who moved from place to place and had difficulty in understanding the relationship between asbestos and their diseases. The government advises that anyone with health fears related to asbestos visit health centers (hokenjo) in their neighborhood for consultations.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has collected relevant information from 65 enterprises handling asbestos, while the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry has gathered similar data from major shipbuilding firms and their subcontractors, which number more than 1,000. It is hoped that the government will take the necessary next steps as soon as possible on the basis of the information.

Apart from the incidents of asbestos inhalation in the past, demolition of old buildings from now on may pose another danger. Firms engaged in such demolition are supposed to cover old buildings and splash water on them. But there is no assurance that they will follow this procedure. Watchful citizens who report any neglect in this regard will do a great service to society.

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