In 2006, Kubota Corp., a major machinery maker, established its own relief system for sufferers of asbestos-linked diseases who were not its employees but were living near its asbestos-contaminated Kanzaki plant in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.
The firm set up the system because it was learned in June 2005 that not only employees but also local residents were suffering health damage from asbestos.
Although the system, which offers “relief money” ranging from ¥25 million to ¥46 million, is praiseworthy, Kubota does not recognize the cause-and-effect relationship between asbestos from the plant and health damage among local residents.
Because of this position taken by Kubota, the bereaved families of Kojiro Yamauchi, who worked some 200 meters away from the factory from 1939 to 1975, and Ayako Yasui, who lived about 1 km away from the factory from 1960 to 1995, refused to receive the relief money. Instead, they filed compensation lawsuits against Kubota and the state.
Yamauchi died in 1996 at the age of 80 and Yasui in 2007 at the aged of 85, both of mesothelioma, cancerous tumors of the pleura or peritoneum.
On Aug. 7, the Kobe District Court ordered the machinery maker to pay some ¥31.9 million in compensation to Yamauchi’s bereaved family, saying that Kubota caused his death by releasing asbestos at least from 1954 to 1975 from its Kanzaki plant, although it did not award compensation to Yasuda’s bereaved family.
The implication of the ruling is important. As attorney Kazuya Yagi pointed out, for the first time, asbestos has been recognized as a form of industrial pollution, exposure to which can damage health. In the past, health damage from asbestos was handled as a labor accident case that only happens inside a factory.
The court did not recognize illegality on the part of the state because, as of 1975, it was not yet known that asbestos could damage the health of residents around the plant.
But both Kubota and the state must give serious thought to the fact that the court has recognized the existence of the cause and effect between asbestos and health damage to a person who is not a worker at Kubota’s factory. Kubota immediately appealed the ruling to the Kobe High Court.
The use of asbestos was mostly banned from September 2006 and a total ban went into force in March 2012. Since it takes 20 to 40 years for asbestos-related health problems to appear, the government must take thorough measures to protect workers engaged in the demolition of aging structures built when asbestos was being used.
The government should also improve its own relief system so that sufficient compensation is provided to victims.