A panel will be set up to devise measures to prevent workers clearing debris in areas devastated by the March 11 disaster from contracting asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, it has been learned.
Asbestos was once widely used as a construction material, particularly for heat insulation. Mixed with dust, the substance is easily scattered through the air.
In 2006, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry totally banned the production, import, sale and use of products with a content rate of asbestos exceeding 0.1 percent.
The panel will consist mainly of scholars and leaders of nonprofit organizations knowledgeable about asbestos, the ministry said Tuesday.
Workers and volunteers removing debris in the earthquake- and tsunami-hit areas will receive advice from ministry officials, while asbestos control instructors will be assigned to local labor standards inspection offices, a ministry official said.
Volunteers are expected to sharply increase during the holiday-studded Golden Week period from Friday to May 8.
“We hope they will work with the danger of asbestos in mind,” the official said.
Environment Ministry officials have already started preparations to measure asbestos dispersal from the debris in the affected areas.
Officials from the two ministries will jointly conduct on-the-spot investigations, and the panel will consider countermeasures based on the results of the probes and other factors.
According to the health ministry, structures built before the 2006 asbestos ban may have used the material for heating insulation. It will be difficult to identify it amid the debris, the officials said.
Many people removing debris are probably temporarily hired residents from the quake-hit areas and volunteers, both not used to such work, thereby increasing the risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases, the official said.
Although the ministry has distributed 90,000 dust prevention masks, many workers prefer not to wear them as they restrict breathing and the recent rise in temperatures increases the discomfort. The health ministry has dispatched nearly 30 staffers from the central headquarters and local labor bureaus to encourage the workers to wear the masks.
The ministry will shortly distribute 600 high-efficiency filter masks with electric fans, which make breathing easier.
It also instructed local labor bureaus to hold meetings for people removing debris for the first time. The bureaus will instruct the workers and volunteers to wear dust prevention masks and steel-capped shoes, and move to the windward side of smoldering debris. Pamphlets on safety awareness will be placed in volunteer centers.
“Safety and health education must be improved at actual working sites,” a senior health ministry official said.
The ministry therefore will ask people with experience in asbestos control, such as those in the construction industry, to be assigned as instructors in labor standards inspection offices in the affected areas, the official added.
Only 1 Hanshin quake case
After the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, a man removing debris developed mesothelioma after inhaling asbestos, and was recognized for worker’s compensation.
This was the only case at the time, as it was difficult to specifically identify how a person contracts the disease because many people worked at construction sites where asbestos dust was prevalent before the quake.
The general public was not well informed of the danger of asbestos at the time, so many workers did not wear masks.
As asbestos-related diseases may have latency periods of 20 to 30 years, some experts say health problems from the substance may increase in the future.
(Apr. 28, 2011)