The Diet enacted a law in early February to financially help people suffering from asbestos-related health problems not covered by labor accident compensation. Eligible people can start filing requests for the aid under the law on March 20. Enactment of the law was quick — in about seven months — after it was discovered that people living near an asbestos-related factory in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, were suffering from illnesses caused by the carcinogenic material.

So far so good. But the government’s basic position on asbestos pollution is far from laudable as it refuses to take responsibility for the nationwide health disaster. Although the carcinogenic quality of asbestos has been known for decades, the government waited until 1995 to ban the production and use of highly poisonous brown and blue asbestos. The use of white asbestos, which is less carcinogenic, wasn’t banned until October 2004. And the government calls the financial aid “relief money,” not compensation.

The law covers people who have lived near asbestos-related factories; family members of workers who wore asbestos-contaminated clothing home; workers — mostly self-employed people — not covered by labor-accident compensation; and bereaved families of asbestos-affected workers who died at least five years ago and for whom the statute of limitations has expired. Affected people typically have developed lung cancer or mesothelioma, a cancerous tumor in the pleura or the peritoneum.

Bereaved families of deceased workers for whom the statute of limitations for labor-accident compensation has expired can choose either an annual pension of 2.4 million yen or a lump sum payment of 12 million yen. Living nonworker victims and living workers not covered by labor-accident compensation will receive money to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses and a monthly rehabilitation allowance of 100,000 yen. Bereaved families of deceased nonworker victims and of deceased workers not covered by labor-accident compensation will be given 2.8 million yen in consolation money and a 200,000 yen funeral fee.

Under normal labor-accident compensation, the minimum benefits that a two-member bereaved family can receive is an annual pension worth 201 days of daily wages, another annual pension of the same amount plus a lump-sum payment of 3 million yen.

The gap between the provisions under the law and the benefits under normal labor-accident compensation is unacceptable to those the law aims to help. Given the government’s negligence in educating the public about the dangers of asbestos and the fact that the victims did nothing wrong to cause their diseases, the gap is all the more disappointing.

In addition to this problem, the government needs to consider whether the law should cover asbestos-related diseases other than lung cancer and mesothelioma.

The law is a quick-fix to help nonworker victims, workers not covered by labor-accident compensation and bereaved families. Since old buildings containing asbestos will continue to be demolished across the country in coming years, the government needs to push long-term measures to minimize or prevent asbestos-related health problems. It is said that 10 million tons of asbestos have been imported into Japan. The Japan Asbestos Association estimates that more than 1.2 million tons of asbestos-contaminated waste material will be produced annually, peaking at 1.7 million tons in 2020. After that year, the amount will decrease gradually, falling to about 400,000 tons in 2033.

The action plan adopted by the government in December calls for the removal of asbestos from public buildings with government support for the work, measures to prevent the dispersion of asbestos in buildings being demolished and to protect demolition workers, stronger control of the disposal of asbestos-containing waste, and improvement in health consultations and information services for the people.

The government needs to inform people about procedures for receiving labor-accident compensation and the benefits offered by the new law. More importantly, it must fully inform people about the dreadful effects of inhaling asbestos from waste construction material and how to prevent such contamination. A system to oversee demolition sites must also be established.

The government must encourage the training of doctors to detect asbestos-related diseases at an early stage, develop a method to neutralize the harmful effects of asbestos waste material through high-temperature melting, and improve asbestos dumping sites. Above all, the government must realize that the new law marks only the beginning of a full-scale fight to minimize damage from asbestos.

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