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    Word for the summer: 石綿 (sekimen: “rock” + “cotton” –> “asbestos”)

    The asbestos scandal has been expanding so rapidly that it seemed wise to wait to say anything about it–there have been new and disheartening revelations just about daily for the last several weeks. The story actually began, of course, decades ago:

    The Environment Agency, predecessor of the Environment Ministry, failed to measure asbestos fiber particle concentration in the air near asbestos-processing factories between 1979 and 1986, despite fears of health risks to residents, sources said.

    Though the agency conducted research for two years starting in 1977 at 14 factories, it did not conduct measurements until an emergency study was made in 1987, when the use of asbestos in school buildings attracted attention as a health problem.

    The agency introduced regulations on use of asbestos in 1989 by revising the Air Pollution Control Law.

    It was known since the 1960s that many residents near asbestos-processing factories overseas had suffered from health problems.

    The agency’s study team urged in 1980 that research near asbestos-processing factories should be done as soon as possible because residents there had inhaled large concentrations of asbestos.

    This is not like the asbestos hysteria in the States twenty years ago, when schools and other public buildings with contained asbestos were subjected to removal programs that actually risked ejecting it into the air at higher levels. Most of the problems that have been recently discovered in Japan involve either workers who handled asbestos of residents of areas near asbestos-using plants. There has been a shopworker whose mesothelioma has been linked to his work in a shop insulated with blue asbestos, but it was in a confined space that he spent a great deal of time in and often cleaned. To my knowledge, no other similar cases have been publicized, but as I say, there have been so many new announcements over the last month and a half that it would be easy to miss one.

    There have been some concerns raised over asbestos in building materials–the latest involved Pacific Materials, a maker of building materials for public works projects, used asbestos in fire-retardant coverings (including what seems to be spray-on foam insulation) up to 1989. Japan tears down and rebuilds facilities at a much higher rate than the US, and that increased turnover makes it more important to know where each fiber in use is. Walls and ceilings do not sit unmolested for long here.  Additionally, Japan has a track record of playing fast and loose with the use and disposal of hazardous materials. Despite Japan’s image as a safety-conscious society with a tightly-controlled economy, safety regulations are often sketchy and slackly enforced. Nuclear screw-ups are the most well-known problem. Americans who arrive in Tokyo get a window on this attitude at seeing construction sites, which are separated from pedestrian pass-throughs by nothing more than traffic cones and plastic tubes; the walkways are often surfaced with pieces of old plywood. Unless there’s a crane swinging I-beams overhead, it is extremely rare for a sidewalk to be entirely closed off for construction.

    Most of the newly publicized cases of illness involve workers who came into repeated high-risk contact with uncontained fibers. The government has been slow to move on this problem, which has been known for decades; and as so often happens, its laxity is coming back to bite it all at one time. Multiple big-name companies have revealed that employees have been known to die of mesothelioma, the cancer most commonly linked with repeated airborne asbestos exposure (and, indeed, not known to be caused by anything else). The problem has invaded public consciousness to the point that fraudulent contractors are coming, uh, out of the woodwork to offer bogus asbestos containment or removal.

    For those who want a run-down on the vocabulary used in the Japanese coverage of the scandal, this Yomiuri article hits most of them in the process of giving a description of the properties of asbestos. One thing that article doesn’t point out is that the blue and brown fibers are considered more carcinogenic than the white fibers; use of new blue and brown asbestos was outlawed in Japan in 1995, and white asbestos wasn’t banned until last year. Remember, though, that if a manufacturer or contractor can argue convincingly that no alternative material is suitable, use of asbestos is still permitted. The statute of limitations on wrongful death claims is also very short–within five years from the day after the victim’s death. Given that asbestos inhalation has been a problem for decades but was largely unpublicized, the government is looking into extending it. Unsurprisingly, victims’ advocates say the move is too little, too late.

    One of the sad things about this recent spate of revelations is that it doesn’t appear to be the result of the usual collusion and cover-ups. Not that I’m a fan of corruption, but there will always be opportunistic and evil people in the world, and if we can’t always prevent them from gaining power, it’s a good thing when we can discover them and address their wrongs as best we can. Regarding asbestos, the problem appears to have been sheer complacency. The companies involved were doing work to keep the Japan, Inc., machine going at relatively low cost, and no one noticeable was dropping dead right at the moment, so…well, even if studies had repeatedly shown that asbestos is a carcinogen, there were other things to worry about.

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