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Waiting for the toll?

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Aug 15, 2005 | From the print edition
Asbestos mortality data makes Japan go for total ban by 2008

Tracking asbestos victims; Jap "it is high time that the Indian government and corporates learn something from their Japanese counterparts," says Ban Asbestos Network of India, a coalition of civil society groups. Japan announced on July 9, 2005, that it will totally ban asbestos use by 2008. The move followed data disclosure by many companies that revealed that many workers had died of asbestos-related illnesses in the country. By July 9, 2005, 20 Japanese manufactures had declared 277 occupational asbestos deaths. In response, Japan's minister for health, labour and welfare Hidehisa Otsuji announced that the partial ban imposed on asbestos use in 2004 will be replaced by a total ban within three years.

Although Japan has banned domestic use of asbestos in principle, it is allowed where no substitutes are available; currently, it is permitted in the manufacture of gaskets for machinery, insulating plates for switchboards, seals for chemical plants and industrial rope. However, the country's asbestos imports fell from the peak 350,000 tonnes in 1974 to 8,000 tonnes in 2004. The declining trend is likely to continue, as more industries develop substitutes.

Otsuji announced that the companies that are reporting asbestos-related deaths would be investigated and the government will ensure quick processing of industrial insurance claims. In addition, medical consultations at local health centres would be provided to the high-risk groups. The ministry will also instruct companies to conduct health checks on current and retired employees and take stringent measures to protect workers involved in demolishing buildings insulated with asbestos. The large volume of asbestos contained in buildings constructed in the 1960s is a major cause of concern. Many of these have to be renovated or demolished in the near future, raising the possibility of asbestos contamination. Meanwhile, the ministry has decided to convene an asbestos panel in 2006 to formulate plans to phase-in the asbestos ban.

However, many feel that the government can do more. "The Japanese government must also ensure that Japanese multinationals with overseas companies implement a ban on the use of asbestos in all their subsidiaries," suggests Laurie Kazan-Allen, head of the International Ban Asbestos Network, a London-based non-governmental organisation.

Many companies, including the Kubota Corporation and Nichias Corporation, announced in June 2005 that many former workers who handled asbestos have died from asbestos-related diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma. Up to 80 deaths linked to asbestos have been reported in the shipbuilding industry; seven major companies disclosed data in this regard. Kawasaki Heavy Industries said 13 employees may have died after inhaling asbestos particles and five others are being treated for lung diseases such as pleurisy. In all cases of death, the cause was mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer. The Misawa Resort Corporation disclosed that 24 workers had died due to asbestos-linked illnesses. "I was in no doubt about the repercussions of decades of asbestos misuse in Japan. Over recent days we have been made aware of the tragic consequences...As the death-toll mounts daily, we can only grieve at the devastation caused by asbestos exposures," rues Kazan-Allen.

Panic has gripped people since the disclosure. Non-governmental organisations and asbestos victims' groups have been receiving numerous calls from people worried about asbestos being present in the buildings they live in. Even more concerned are those who live near manufacturing facilities using asbestos and demolition sites.

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