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The government has drafted an outline of a bill to provide financial aid to sufferers of asbestos-caused cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the membranes surrounding the lungs, and to bereaved family members of victims. The government hopes to have the Diet enact the bill next year.

Health damage from asbestos as well as worries about ill effects in the future are spreading nationwide. The fears have been touched off by revelations since June that the mineral has killed thousands of people over the past few decades.

Drafters of the bill thus far should be commended for covering sufferers not eligible for labor-accident compensation — such as family members of workers who handled asbestos, people who lived near asbestos-related factories, asbestos-affected workers for whom the statute of limitations has expired, and family members of such workers who died five or more years ago.

All the same, the bill should be designed so that any person likely to have suffered from an asbestos-related lung disease, or a bereaved family member, can receive financial aid without going through rigid eligibility tests.

The government has not yet worked out details for determining which people will be eligible for aid. In principle, however, assistance should be extended even to suspected cases in which people may have difficulty proving a relationship between asbestos and their disease. This is important because the incubation period before the symptoms of asbestos damage appear can be as long as 20 to 40 years.

Sufferers of mesothelioma would receive aid almost automatically because asbestos is considered the most likely cause of this disease. Other people may have difficulty gathering the necessary evidence such as medical records and X-ray charts. The recognition procedure should be simplified as much as possible so that no sufferer or bereaved family member gives up applying for financial aid.

The bill introduces many other points that have yet to be hammered out. The government must decide on the details of financial aid. Authorities are considering providing medical fees and monthly benefits to people with asbestos-related lung diseases while making lump-sum payments and funeral-cost compensation to surviving family members.

Reportedly, the amount of a lump-sum payment for bereaved family members of nonworker victims would be several million yen — possibly lower than that provided under the workers’ compensation system. Nonworker victims should not be treated differently from worker victims.

The bill incorporates the idea that the industries and companies concerned should contribute to a fund from which sufferers would receive money. Some companies and industries are said to fear being singled out as sources of contributions solely because of their good business performance. The government must devise a plan that obliges businesses to take due responsibility; at the same time, the plan must be convincingly equitable.

The bill should also make clear the state’s responsibility for health damage from asbestos. As far back as 1972, the International Labor Organization pointed out the harmful nature of asbestos. The labor ministry and the environmental agency at the time became aware of the risk, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the government banned the production and use of the very harmful brown and blue asbestos. Although the use of white asbestos, whose carcinogenic nature is said to be weak, was banned in October 2004, use of asbestos is still allowed in products for which suitable substitutes have not been found.

The government denies administrative nonfeasance, although it failed to act on the need to take a preventive approach. There was also inadequate communication between government ministries and agencies. With cases of asbestos-related diseases being reported one after another, it would not be far-fetched to say that there was some negligence on the part of the government.

Although enterprises should take direct responsibility for the asbestos-related lung diseases of workers on the job, the government should accept some responsibility, since, in some cases, people came down with lung diseases from asbestos fibers that scattered into the air from nearby factories.

Asbestos remains in the structures of many buildings in Japan. The government should set up a powerful permanent body to develop measures to deal with the issue as soon as possible, including measures to prevent the scattering of asbestos when old buildings are razed. It also should carefully listen to the opinions of sufferers as the details of the bill are worked out.

The government plans to completely ban the use of asbestos in 2008. It should do so sooner, say in 2006, as Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hidehisa Otsuji has suggested.

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