Asbestos Fallout from Japanese Disasters
Faced with the unprecedented human catastrophe caused by the recent Japanese disasters, it is no wonder that local officials have been at a loss as how best to proceed; indeed civil authorities in hard-hit areas like Miyagi prefecture have admitted that they were slow to confront the asbestos hazard. Unfortunately, the result of inaction has been the hazardous exposures of workers, residents and volunteers who have roamed polluted sites with no restrictions and no knowledge of the unseen dangers lurking amidst the piles of broken wallboards, shattered floor tiles, and asbestos-cement rubble.1 In the last month, attempts have been made to quantify the asbestos fallout and implement measures to provide basic protection to at-risk populations.
Given that millions of tons of asbestos were used in Japan, it was predictable that contamination would be found amidst the devastation. Sadly, such has proved to be the case. The majority of debris samples collected in the Sendai area by Tokyo-based analyst Eric Eguina last month confirmed the presence of asbestos contamination. Air samples taken near a collapsed building revealed airborne asbestos levels of 2 fibres per liter. Although this level does not exceed Japan's 10 fiber per liter standard, it is indicative of a serious problem as the amount of airborne contamination will exceed this many times over due to the disturbance and upheaval caused by the heavy machinery and cranes used during cleanup operations.2 According to Environment Ministry official Hisao Yamaguchi, the results of air monitoring undertaken by government scientists in 15 locations in Fukushima, Ibaraki and Miyagi prefectures in April are due to be released later this month.
More than a month after the Japanese earthquakes and tsunami occurred, a government official announced that an asbestos education program would be set up to protect clean-up workers. Assistance is being sought from experts and non-governmental organizations involved with asbestos issues. Local labor inspection offices will be staffed with asbestos control instructors who will provide on-site advice to at-risk personnel.3 Unfortunately, the effectiveness of 90,000 dust masks given to workers by the Ministry of Labor has been limited due to the fact that the masks restrict the wearer's breathing. To remedy this, 600 state-of-the-art masks with electric fans are being distributed. Attempts are being made by Ban Asbestos Japan, the Tokyo Occupational Safety and Health Center and affiliated organizations to raise asbestos awareness amongst the public as well as the emergency responders and clean-up crews. An outreach program mounted by the Masks Delivery Project against Asbestos, has dispensed more than 12,000 disposable masks and guidance leaflets to people in affected areas.
This week (May 2-5) a delegation composed of a member of the House of Representatives, representatives of Ban Asbestos Japan and volunteers inspected the tsunami devastation in Iwate Prefecture, Japan's second largest prefecture and an area in which entire towns were swept away by monstrous tidal waves. Having consulted with officials in affected areas such as Rikuzentakata, Otsuchi, Kamaishi and Oofunato, they helped raise asbestos awareness, delivered masks and observed the state of reconstruction work which they report as being in high gear.
May 6, 2011
1 Hosaka T.A. Japan disaster's other hidden danger: Asbestos. April 27, 2011.
2 Japanese threatened by asbestos. April 27, 2011.
3 Asbestos is a danger to workers in Japan. April 28, 2011.