Japan: Total Asbestos Ban by 2008!
Towards the end of June, 2005, major Japanese manufacturing companies divulged data which detailed the deadly repercussions of the county's use of asbestos. As of July 9, 2005, 20 manufacturers had declared a total of 277 occupational asbestos deaths. Responding to these shocking revelations, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hidehisa Otsuji announced that the partial ban imposed on asbestos use in Japan in 2004 would be supplanted within three years by a total ban.1 A panel will be convened by the Ministry of Health to draw up plans to phase-in the asbestos ban.2 Minister Otsuji confirmed that the companies which are reporting asbestos-related deaths would be investigated and that civil servants would oversee the expeditious processing of industrial insurance claims; medical consultations at local health centres would be offered to those at high-risk of contracting an asbestos disease. Urging greater cooperation between Government Agencies and Ministries, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged that the prevention of further asbestos-related disease was a high priority.
The Japanese infrastructure is riddled with asbestos. Asbestos was liberally used in buildings constructed in the 1960s; these buildings, which are coming to the end of their useful life, will need to be refurbished or demolished in the near future. Unless effective measures are taken, asbestos from these sites will put workers and the public at risk. On July 31, the West Japan Railway Company announced that nearly all (1,147 out of 1,216) of its stations contain asbestos in their roofs, walls and on steel beams. Japanese asbestos victims' groups and health NGOs report hundreds of calls from people worried about exposures at construction sites, in domestic settings and in neighbourhoods near asbestos-consuming factories and demolition sites. Protocols which came into effect in July, 2005, to prevent the dispersal of asbestos during demolition work, will be enforced from August by labor standards inspectors.
Throughout July, 2005, there has been extensive media coverage of the asbestos epidemic in Japan; public awareness of this national tragedy has grown to new heights. Reacting to the rising tide of public outrage, various initiatives have been announced:
the use of asbestos at 9,000 hospitals, day-care centres and homes for the elderly will be researched by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry;
the Construction and Transport Ministry, in conjunction with the Health Ministry, will study the national incidence of occupational asbestos deaths;
the Education, Science and Technology Ministry will examine the use of asbestos in 147,000 public buildings, administrative sites and schools, from kindergartens through universities;
the Defense Agency will establish an information service and medical check-up program for Maritime Self-Defense Force engineers who were exposed to asbestos;
the Environment Agency is looking into asbestos disposal practices.
In April, 2005, a meeting took place in the Yokosuka town hall during which a local asbestos victim's group discussed the asbestos-contamination of schools with the Deputy Mayor and Head of the Education Department. At that meeting, neither official would accept that the presence of deteriorating sprayed asbestos in local schools required urgent action. Perhaps they will listen now?
August 1, 2005
1 Hundreds of deaths spur ministry. Plan to ban all asbestos use by 2008. The Japan Times. July 9, 2005.
2 Currently asbestos use is still permitted in the manufacture of gaskets for machinery, insulating plates for switchboards, seals for chemical plants and industrial rope.