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Mesothelioma Lawyer - Article - Lessons in Japan's Asbestosis Time Bomb

Posted on Feb 15, 2006 | ipsnews.net

Lessons in Japan 's Asbestosis Time Bomb

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO , Feb 15 (IPS) - As a child, Yoshiharu Sawada, now 77 years old, would visit his mother at the local asbestos factory where she worked and wait till she finished her shift so they could walk home together.

But, today, says Sawada, a frail, soft-spoken man, those happy memories have turned into a terribly tragedy. Sawada was diagnosed with pleurisy ten years ago and suffers horribly from long bouts of coughing that leave him numbed with pain.

''I never realised those happy days had actually laid the foundation for my disease because nobody told us that asbestos is deadly,'' he explained to IPS.

Sawada, whose mother died of a lung disease 17 years ago, can hardly breathe and was forced to give up his occupation as a shopkeeper. He relies on heavy and costly medication and a small pension that barely covers his living expenses.

Several times over the past few years, he has been hospitalised for procedures to remove water in his lungs, a condition doctors say could be related to the intake of deadly asbestos particles that he was exposed to as a child.

Prolonged exposure to asbestos dust often results in a condition, broadly known as asbestosis, in which victims suffer from shortness of breath and become prone to several forms of lung disease including pleurisy and lung cancer--especially of a specific type called mesothelioma.

''I remember how the factory where my mother worked was full of asbestos particles. I could hardly see her working because the air was so thick with white asbestos dust,'' he explains in his little home in Kumamoto , 1,200 km west of Tokyo .

Asbestos, a material once hailed as a wonder substance because of its cheapness and its resistance to fire and heat, has been used as a raw material in over 3,000 products according to some experts here.

But, Japan's unregulated use of asbestos in the seventies and eighties is now being linked to thousands of deaths and cancer cases among middle-aged workers who had been exposed to the deadly 'mineral fibre' in their factories or in buildings.

Says Hiroyuki Kawamoto, director of the Kanagawa Asbestos Centre: ''The latest asbestos scandal has shocked the public because it shows once again, how the government's priority was protecting the health of corporations over the health of the people. There are now more than 200 people who seek our assistance here for compensation''.

Indeed, investigations have squarely blamed the government and shown that despite international medical evidence in the seventies that proved the connection between asbestos -- a form of stone -- and lung cancer, the health ministry did nothing to stop its usage in Japan .

As a result, almost 800 deaths attributed to mesothelioma were reported among middle-aged workers in 2003 -- a figure that activists say is only the beginning because asbestos is " a silent time bomb" given the long years it takes for the disease to develop after exposure.

The scandal forced the government to pass a special compensation package with asbestos companies for sufferers and victims last month. Payments also include around 1,000 US dollars per month for people, an amount that is that is less than half of regular workers' compensation.

But the package does not cover people like Sawada who do not have mesothelioma or have not worked with asbestos directly. This is a situation that is being challenged by activists who see the new law as an attempt by the government to avoid accepting blame.

Prof. Ken Takahashi, at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in KitaKyushu, predicts an asbestos related epidemic in Japan as workers begin to grow old and start falling ill. He estimates that around 2,440 people a year will die of mesothelioma between 2035 and 2039.

''The compensation law was quickly passed to deal with an emerging grave problem in Japan ,'' he says, pointing out it was an important landmark in the fight to force the government to take responsibility, despite the lack of concrete support.

With backing from the International Labour Organisation, experts and activists have joined hands with sufferers to demand better protection standards which they say is important not only for Japan but also for most countries in Asia where asbestos is yet to be banned.

Takahashi, a participant in the Global Asbestos Congress 2004, points out that the threat is large given the relentless pursuit of market economy expansion in developing Asia and that Japan provides important lessons for many governments.

''The tragedy in Japan acts as a crucial example for Asia . It's best to limit the usage of asbestos in countries that have still not banned the product. Japan can also help with better health check systems in Asia ,'' said Takahashi, indicating how smaller asbestos companies in Japan have gone bankrupt from paying out workers' compensations. (END/2006)

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