Killing The Future: Asbestos Use In Asia

Asbestos Experiences of Asian Countries: Japan

Asbestos Experience in Japan

Widespread public awareness of Japan's lethal asbestos legacy began on June 29, 2005, the day the Kubota Corporation disclosed that scores of workers at its former Kanzaki asbestos-cement pipe plant had contracted mesothelioma, an aggressive type of cancer. The company was responding to requests from local mesothelioma victims for data on the amount and types of asbestos used at the factory and the number of workers affected. From 1954-1975, crocidolite and chrysotile were used at this site in the production of asbestos-cement pipes; from 1971-1997, only chrysotile was used for the manufacture of construction materials, mainly roofing products. The first occupational asbestos death caused by the Kanzaki plant was an asbestosis fatality which occurred in 1979; seven years later, the first Kubota worker died of mesothelioma. By March 2005, there had been 75 asbestos-related deaths amongst the Kanzaki workforce; by March 2006, this figure has risen to 105. As the factory had employed a total of 1,015 workers for more than one year, means that more thatn 10% of all the workers have died of asbestos-related diseases.

Hazardous exposure to Kubota asbestos was not confined to the workplace, however, and cases of mesothelioma contracted from neighborhood exposure were reported.53 Research undertaken by Drs. N. Kurumatani and S. Kumagai charted mesotheliomas amoungst people in Amagasaki City living within 1,500 meters of the former Kubota Kanzaki plant. By the end of March 2006, 99 cases of mesothelioma had been confirmed amongst local people whose only exposure to asbestos was environmental. In 1975, more than 20% of townspeople (120,000 out of 540,000) lived in areas where asbestos fiber concentration levels were estimated to have exceeded 10 f/liter. Although no largescale epidemiological survey has been conducted on the impact of environmental asbestos exposure in Japan, anecdotal evidence has been accumulating which demonstrates the effect that Japanese asbestos consumption has had on residents living in proximity to asbestos-using factories.54 Unfortunately, Amagasaki City is not the only locale where mesothelioma has been found amongst residents; researchers are locating increasing numbers of victims in diverse areas:55

The Kubata announcement seemed to open a floodgate to admissions by the other well-known and respected national corporations that created an asbestos storm throughout the Japanese media. On July 1, 2005 the Taiheiyo Cement Corporation announced that six of its workers had also died from mesothelioma. Five days later, the Nichias Corporation, formerly called the Japan Asbestos Corporation, admitted that 86 former workers had died of asbestos-related diseases. By July 5, 2005, in response to Government enquiries, 20 manufactures had declared a total of 277 occupational asbestos deaths.56 The media attention these announcements attracted was enormous; the "Kubota Shock", as this sequence of events came to be called, had a great impact on the national government and the public.

Although the Kubata Shock was the impetus which finally forced the Japanese Government to address the national asbestos scandal,57 the first asbestos panic had, in fact, taken place nearly 20 years earlier:

Unfortunately, the Japanese Government did not react to any of these developments and the asbestos business continued unabated for another two decades. Long after other industrialized countries had imposed regulations on using or importing asbestos, Japan continued to utilize crocidolite, amosite and chrysotile. Epidemiological data from Europe, North America and Austrailia show the correlation between the level of national asbestos consumption and the incidence of mesothelioma mortality. Based on Japan's high levels of consumption-up to 10 million tonnes of asbestos were imported- and the lack of regulations to protect workers and the public from hazardous asbestos exposures, Japanese epidemiologists are predicting more than 100,000 deaths from malignant pleural mesothelioma in the next 40 years. Had Japan acted on the precautionary principle and banned asbestos sooner, many of these deaths could have been avoided.

The Japanese Government's first response to the Kubota Shock was to set up an inter-ministerial team at section chief level (July 1, 2005); the bureaucratic response was soon upgraded to department director level (July 21) and subsequently to minister level (July 28) in light of public outrage at the Government's decades of collusion with the asbestos industry. Responding to the Kubata revelations, in July 2005 Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hidehisa Otsuji announced that the partial asbestos ban adopted in 2004 would be supplanted within three years by a total ban;58 Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged that the prevention of further asbestos-related disease was a high priority. On August 11, 2005, Japan ratified the ILO Asbestos Convention Number 162, nearly 20 years after it had been adopted.

After six months of high-level meetings, it was resolved that:

Victims' organizations criticized the relief scheme as inadeqauate. Compensation for Japanese asbestos victims remains compartmentalized with occupational and non-occupational exposure claimants being eligible under some laws and not under others;

The changes which have improved the medical treatment and legal position of asbestos victims were the result of coordinated efforts by campaigning trade unions and NGOs such as BANJAN and JOSHRC60 which, in cooperation with the Japan Association of Mesothelioma and Asbestos-Related Disease Victims and their Families, now represent the "voice of the people" in the national asbestos debate. Sugio Furuya, BANJAN Secretary General, believes that the asbestos experience in Japan has lessons for other Asian countries :

Lesson 1: Adopt the precautionary approach based on the experience of industrialized countries withoug awaiting the appearance of a national asbestos epidemic.
Lesson 2: Introduce national asbestos bans as soon as possible; a ban on asbestos marks the first stip in tackling a wide range of issues which make up national asbestos legacies
Lesson 3: Coordinate the efforts of social partners to maximize effectiveness, the empowerment of asbestos victims and their families should be at the heart of an asbestos campaign.
Lesson 4: Facilitate global cooperation at various levels and across subject disciplines.

To mark the one year anniversary of the Asbestos Victims' Relief Law, on March 25 and 26, 2007 hundreds of Japanese demonstrators expressed their outrage at the inadequacy of government compensation for asbestos-related injuries during a demonstration at the National Diet, a mass rally and a symposium on the Asbestos Relief Law held in Tokyo. Calling for "fair and equal compensation for all asbestos victims," the protestors highlighted the cumbersome red-tape, unfairness of screening criteria which bars people with asbestosis from claiming, shoddy treatment of victims whose exposure was non-occupational and injustice meted out to bereaved families who receive no compensation if ailing relatives die before qualifying for benefits. Representatives from seven areas in Japan affected by environmental asbestos contamination participated in these events.

Notes:

53. Neighborhood victims contract mesothelioma at a younger age than occupational victims because their exposure to asbestos begins at an earlier age.
54. From 1930 to 2004, more than 10 million tonnes of asbestos were imported by Japan to produce a range of asbestos products including asbestos-cement building, sewage and drainage products, insulation boards, insulation products including sprayed asbestos, joints and packing, friction materials, floor tiles and sheets, molded plastics and battery boxes (containing 55-70% asbestos), and fillers, reinforcements, felts, millboards, paper, filter pads for wines and beers, underseals, plastics, adhesives and coatings.
55. Jehan N. Asbestos Risks: Occupational and Para-Occupational Health Status in Pakistan. Global Asbestos Congress, November 2004.
56. Mesothleioma Cancer on the Rise in NWFP; (assessed June 14, 2004)
57. Jehan N. Asbestos Risks: Occupational and Para-Occupational Health Status in Pakistan. Global Asbestos Congress, November 2004.
58. Jehan N. Asbestos Risks: Occupational and Para-Occupational Health Status in Pakistan. Global Asbestos Congress, November 2004.
59. Jehan N. Asbestos Risks: Occupational and Para-Occupational Health Status in Pakistan. Global Asbestos Congress, November 2004.
60. Jehan N. Asbestos Risks: Occupational and Para-Occupational Health Status in Pakistan. Global Asbestos Congress, November 2004.

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