Remembering the Kobe Earthquake
More than 6,000 people died as a result of the Great Hanshin earthquake, Japan's worst earthquake in decades. To mark the 15th anniversary of the natural disaster, several events were held on January 16 & 17, 2010 in Kobe, the town where 4,600 lives were lost;1 the subject matter discussed included the consequences of contamination caused by the liberation of asbestos from the built environment on January 17, 1995. Scientists who studied the environmental repercussions of the earthquake, estimated that:
the quake liberated 26.4 kg of asbestos into the environment. Experiments revealed that demolition without pre-removal of asbestos caused the highest levels of asbestos emissions into the surrounding areas; asbestos removal costs accounted for 68-94% of total demolition costs.2
A meeting about the earthquake and its asbestos fallout was attended by 300 people on the afternoon of January 16.
The session was organized by the Hyogo Occupational Safety and Health Center and the Hyogo branch of the Japanese Association of Asbestos Victims with the support of the Hyogo Prefecture and Kobe City government.3
The next morning, a street demonstration called Earthquake Asbestos Masks Project took place. The aims of this event were to: raise asbestos awareness amongst children, distribute face masks, educate the public on the use of face masks, and support calls on local authorities to stockpile masks.
A survey carried out in 2009 of prefectural governments found that 42 out of 47 (90%) did not include protective masks as part of their emergency supplies.4
In the afternoon of January 17, a symposium at Ritsumeikan University was held; the title of this session was: Uncovering the Asbestos Hazard lessons from the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the World Trade Center Disaster. The keynote speaker, Dr. Stephen M. Levin from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, addressed the subject: Exposure Risks Following the Kobe Earthquake, Developing Medical Monitoring and Treatment Programs for Health Effects Among WTC Rescue and Recovery Workers.
In February, 2009, a mesothelioma victim from Hyogo Prefecture was awarded workers compensation due to asbestos exposure he experienced during demolition work after the 1995 disaster.
Reflecting on these activities Sugio Furuya, a member of Ban Asbestos Japan and the Asian-Ban Asbestos Network, said:
All of us who took part in the events on January 16 & 17 were mindful of the huge earthquake which hit Haiti just a few days earlier. On the 15th anniversary of the Hanshin earthquake, it was an awful reminder of the unpredictability and tragic effects of natural disasters.
One of the lessons learned from the disaster which affected residents in Kobe, Awaji, Ashiya and Nishinomiya was the failure of government agencies and authorities to coordinate their response to the disaster. For this reason, it is gratifying to report that the memorial events were supported by a coalition which included NGOs, government agencies and city and prefecture authorities.
January 20, 2010
1 1995: Earthquake devastates Kobe. BBC.
3 Kobe is the capital of Hyogo Prefecture; Japan's 47 prefectures are subnational jurisdictions run by directly elected governors.
4 Local governments ill-equipped with emergency asbestos masks survey. January 5, 2010. The Mainichi Daily News.