In the construction boom in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games as well as major urban redevelopment projects, old buildings in the metropolitan area are being demolished in growing numbers. This adds to the urgency of the need to tighten regulations on dealing with asbestos, which was once widely used as a construction material and whose dust poses a serious health risk if inhaled.
From the 1960s to 2006, when it was banned in principle, asbestos was used as a low-cost construction material for fire-proofing and heat insulation in this country. Inhaling its tiny fibers — each roughly 1/5,000th the breadth of a hair — while cutting the materials at construction sites and spraying it on walls and ceilings exposed construction workers to the risk of contracting such illnesses as lung cancer and mesothelioma.
It takes decades for symptoms to emerge after inhaling asbestos dust, and the number of deaths due to health damage from exposure to asbestos dust has been growing rapidly in recent years. The number of people who died of mesothelioma reached 1,555 in 2017, triple the figure for 1995. There are no accurate numbers on how many people have died of lung cancer caused by asbestos dust, but the figure is estimated to be twice to several times larger than the number of mesothelioma victims. It’s estimated that deaths from mesothelioma will continue to rise and reach 4,000 annually in 2030. One forecast estimates that as many as 100,000 people will die of the disease in the 40 years from 2000.
One reason why such extensive health damage continues today is that Japan’s response to the health hazards posed by asbestos lagged behind that of many European countries. Even after the use of asbestos in construction was banned in principle in 2006, the risk of new health damage has lingered. It is estimated that there are 2.8 million buildings that may contain asbestos across the country, and their demolition is forecast to peak in the late 2020s. Workers engaged in demolishing or renovating those buildings could be exposed to asbestos dust.
Under the law regulating air-polluting materials, if a building to be demolished uses friable asbestos (which crumbles easily), the company engaged in its demolition is required to undertake preliminary research and explain it to the party that gave the demolishment order, which in turn must report to the prefectural government.
But the regulation does not cover non-friable asbestos on the grounds that the risk of asbestos dust being generated during the handling of such materials is low. However, it is known that such materials do produce asbestos dust when they are crushed by heavy machinery. The risk of health damage from such materials is not negligible since roughly 80 percent of the 10 million tons of asbestos produced or imported over the past half century is known to have been used for construction materials, 90 percent of which was used in construction materials that are deemed to have a low risk of generating asbestos dust.
A subcommittee of the Central Environment Council, which advises the environment minister, is said to be weighing tightening the regulation on non-friable asbestos materials to put them on par with the friable asbestos materials in the demolition of buildings. An amendment to the law on air-polluting materials being readied for submission to the Diet next year would also require inspections to verify completion of the work and assigning licensed personnel with expertise on the matter in the preliminary research, and tighten penalties against illegal work.
One of the challenges will be to ensure the quality of the licensed personnel, since some licenses can be obtained without on-site training. There is also criticism that the preliminary research and final assessment will be left in the hands of those engaged in the demolition work instead of a third-party probe and inspection, as is more common in other industrialized countries. Measures to protect workers from exposure to asbestos dust at demolition sites, such as gauging the air density of asbestos dust on-site, mandating the risk assessment of potential health hazards and ensuring the choice of adequate protective gear, will also be essential.
A series of lawsuits have been filed in recent years by construction workers who contracted lung cancer and mesothelioma after inhaling asbestos dust at construction sites decades ago, and court rulings have been handed down ordering the government and construction materials makers to pay damages to the former workers and the relatives of those who have died for their responsibility in failing to protect their health. To stop the health hazard from asbestos dust from expanding, steps must be taken to tighten regulations to protect workers from the risk of exposure to asbestos dust when demolishing buildings.
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