Japan’s silent killer


Despite laws and regulations, asbestos drifts through the Japanese air

TOKYO (majirox news) — Many buildings in Japan were built in the past using asbestos, the use was banned in Japan only in 2004, many years after bans imposed in other developed nations. When such buildings are demolished, there is a risk of carcinogenic asbestos dust drifting through the air.

Reports from the Central Environmental Council of Japan, affiliated with the Ministry of the Environment, show a long history of fraud and falsification by contractors engaged in the demolition of asbestos-equipped buildings, including reuse of respirators, lack of proper anti-dust precautions, falsification of workers’ names, and other shortcuts.

Analyses from independent laboratories sampling the air around such demolition sites almost invariably contradict the reports from laboratories approved by the Ministry of Labour, Health and Welfare (MHLW), which tag the air as “safe.”

This is not the only time that the MHLW has come under fire for its asbestos-related policies. The guidelines set by the Ministry have been ruled as “inappropriate” by the Kobe District Court. And though the number of deaths in Japan from a specific type of lung cancer associated with asbestos – mesothelioma – appears to have risen (over 1,200 in 2011), the number of cases recognized as being eligible for aid has fallen. The total number of lung cancer deaths caused by asbestos is unavailable. This figure is guessed to be about twice that of the number of deaths caused by mesothelioma.

But even if you live nowhere near an older building being demolished, asbestos may still be floating in the air you breathe. Chimneys and ducts lined with asbestos all over Japan may have their linings breaking apart, according to a survey conducted by a researcher at the Building Research Institute and another at the Tokyo Occupational Safety & Health Center. Up to 50,000 chimneys across Japan may have been lined with the “kapostack” material which was largely comprised of amosite asbestos – a highly toxic form of the mineral.

And for those in the Tohoku disaster, the debris left by the quake and tsunami appears, according to a Web site dedicated to mesothelomia (mesothelomia.net), to be causing air pollution from asbestos at levels above those considered safe by the World Health Organization. This may have been exacerbated by the employment of “quick and dirty” contractors who removed the debris quickly without any concern for safety regulations. This hazard was even mentioned in a largely unremarked portion of a speech made by the Emperor of Japan when he visited Tohoku last year.

Of course, this is not the only issue that Japan faces, but the MHLW’s current “solution” for this particular problem – sweeping unpleasant facts under the carpet – is yet another symptom of the all-too-familiar attitude that the Japanese have come to expect from the faceless bureaucrats who have held the reins of power for so long, and makes a mockery of the English catchphrase proudly displayed on the Ministry Web site: “For people, for life, for the future”.

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