Stepping on total elimination of asbestos use in Japan

by FURUYA Sugio
Secretary General of JOSHRC and BANJAN

On November 6, 1998, the "international conference toward total elimination of asbestos use with participants from UK and France" was organized by Ban Asbestos Network Japan (BANJAN), which includes different citizens organizations, labor unions and safety campaigners.

The conference was started with a keynote speech given by Sugio Furuya, secretary general of BANJAN, who reported the campaign activities and strategy toward elimination of asbestos use. Then, Mr. Mick Holder with London Hazards Centre, a guest speaker from UK, reported the latest developments in UK and Europe where asbestos ban is coming on the agenda and the many years of struggles waged by victims, their families, labor unions and citizens. Another guest speaker, Mr. Paul Jobin, researcher with l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences sociales (EHESS), who is studying on the air pollution case in Kawasaki, Japan for comparison with the asbestos litigation started in France in 1996, gave an presentation about the progress toward asbestos elimination in his country.

The conference led to adaptation of a protest directed to the Canadian Government which had lodged complaints against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with a view of obstructing an international trend towards the ban on carcinogenic asbestos, and a request to the Japanese Government for quick ban on asbestos use. On November 10 and 11, additional conferences were held in Osaka and Hiroshima, respectively.

In addition to a series of speeches, Mick Holder went through a tight schedule including discussions with OSH activists between 8th and 9th, doctors and construction workers, and visit to Tokyo office for IFBWW before he left Japan on 13.

On November 9, we visited the Canadian Embassy together with Holder and his interpreter to lodge our representations over the Canadian Government's move aimed at preventing the international trend toward eliminating use of asbestos.

The officials with the Embassy said that our messages were clear and understandable, and promised to transmit our messages to the Federal Government, which would receive seriously the voice from Japan, one of the most important market for Canadian chrysotile. To explain the position of the Canadian government, however, they added," the safe and controlled use of chrysotile would minimized the relevant risks and secure workers' health. The Federal Government and states ratified the international safety standards for asbestos in 1988. The Government has been assisting the developing countries with training on safe use of chrysotile." The staff from BANJAN criticized their position by indicating the actual use of asbestos observed over the workplaces resulting in uncontrolled exposure to these highly hazardous materials. Asked whether the Canadian government has been moving in on the Japanese Government to successfully advance the proceedings at WTO, the officials said that the Canadian Government followed the procedures specified by WTO, and that they could provide no more detailed information about the matter.

Anti-Asbestos Campaign in Japan

On November 14, BANJAN was established. The organization is composed of labor unions including; National Federation of Construction Workers' Unions, All Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers' Union, All Japan Dock Worker's Union and All Japan Shipbuilding and Engineering Union on one hand, and citizens' groups including; Consumers Union of Japan, Japan Citizen's Network for Wiping Out Asbestos and JOSHRC and other local OSH centers.

In 1988, one year after the establishment of BANJAN, Japan imported 320 thousand tons of asbestos (Japan relied almost on imports for these materials). The peak in use of asbestos was reached in 1974 with 352,110 tons, and thereafter the use followed more or less the global trend. Thus the figure for 1988 represents the second peak in the use of asbestos in Japan.

Since its establishment, BANJAN has been lending itself to raising awareness and consciousness about the hazardous asbestos and their health damages, and to waging a number of campaigns for urging stricter regulations, use of alternative materials and relief of victims.

On January 19, 1990, BANJAN drafted recommendations for anti-asbestos policy and began a series of campaigns including signature raising, in order to establish an asbestos control law under an initiative of lawmakers. The intensive campaigns delivered about 630,000 signatures in favor of establishing anti-asbestos law, and the then socialists presented a daft law to the Diet. The draft law, however, faced the opposition of the Liberal Democratic Party, falling through without deliberations.

Through these efforts, however, we successfully contacted a number of uncovered victims and ensured the following stronger regulations.

1) Revision of the working environment measurement standard for asbestos concentration from 5 fibers/cm3 to 2 fibers/cm3 in 1988 (The Japan Asbestos Association, comprised of asbestos industries, established 1 fiber/cm3 for a voluntary asbestos control standard in working environment.)

2) Revision of Anti Air Pollution Law in 1989 involving reduction of the asbestos concentration at the boundary of asbestos products manufacturing sites to 10 filers/l and designation of pollution controller

3) Revision of a law on waste disposal and cleanup in 1992 involving the inclusion of asbestos wastes into the classified industry wastes category

4) Establishment of "Guideline on the indications of chemicals or other hazardous materials " in 1992 requiring any materials containing more than 1% of asbestos to be indicated on the material safety data sheets

5) Revision of Ministerial Ordinances relevant to the OSH law in 1995 which banned manufacturing amosite and crocidolite products

i) The industries stopped the use of crocidolite and amosite in 1988 and 1993, respectively.

ii) The mandatory exposure control measures for materials with more than 1% content of asbestos, including labeling, installation of local exhausters, occupational health education, etc.

iii) Watering around the workplaces subject to dust rising and wearing personal respiration equipment and protective clothing

iv) Keeping records on possible asbestos materials in the buildings before demolition or backfitting

v) Separating the sprayed asbestos removal areas from the rest of the buildings during their demolition or backfitting

vi) Declaration of sprayed asbestos removal plans to competent labor standard inspection offices

6) Revision of Ministerial Ordinances relevant to the OSH law in 1996 involving the inclusion of asbestos-related product manufacturing or handling industries into the job categories involving distribution of health management notebook for retired workers

7) Revision of Anti-Air pollution law in 1996, which provided for the declaration of sprayed asbestos removal plans in a specified range of buildings prior to its implementation, and

8) Revision of the Notification related to the law on the import and export of classified hazardous wastes, which provided for inclusion of asbestos wastes into the waste material category requiring Governmental approval prior to import and export

It should be noted that chrysotile is exempt from any use restriction with exception of spraying.

The successive revisions of regulations arguably have helped reduce the asbestos import. Yet the figure for 1997 totaled up to 176,021 tons, which means that Japan is virtually the only country adherent to substantial asbestos use. Japan imports the materials from Canada (45%), South Africa (25%), Zimbabwe (14%), Brazil (5.5%) and Russia (5.4%).

Asbestos is used in so various applications that asbestos related products surround us throughout our daily life because of their excellent noninflammable and wastage-resistant characteristics. It is said that there have been more than 3,000 product types of asbestos.

As of 1995, the constructing materials account for 93% of asbestos applications, including flat slates (42.1%), slates (20.6%), extrusion cement board (18.4%), bulb cement board and slag plaster board (5.2%), asbestos cement siding board (4.3%) and the rest (2.4%). The other asbestos is used for vehicle friction materials (2.9%), joint sheets (1.4%) and others. The huge amount of asbestos built in the common living environment will continue to threaten our health for tens of years.

The statistics on certified occupational disease victims shows that lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma resulting from asbestos exposure have increased with two-digit figures scored since 1985. Especially 1992 saw more than 20 victims with lung cancer or malignant mesothelioma certified, and in 1996 the figure for this occupational disease category reached 27. (As for asbestosis, its statistical information is not available, although the asbestosis victims may well account for a substantial portion of over one thousand pneumoconiosis victims certified on an annual basis.)

The increase of certified victims in number could be attributed more or less to our efforts to grub up unidentified victims (ANJAN and JOSHRC jointly organized a hot line service for the potential victims in 1990 and 1991), although they represent only a portion of the iceberg above the sea.

The asbestos-related victims brought in damage lawsuits against their employer, as given below:

1) One ex-asbestos spraying worker and a surviving family of a deceased worker sued agaisnt Nihon Asubesuto Ltd. and Tomrex Ltd., claiming their abestosis. The case was settled in 1980 at Tokyo District Court with a total of 80 million yen in compensation.

2) Three ex-asbestos products manufacturing workers and 21 families of deceased workers sued against Heiwa Sekimen Ltd., Asahi Sekimen Ltd. and the Government. Nagano District Court ruled out the liability of the Government but the settlement was reached with 180 million yen in compensation before the higher court decided.

3) An ex-worker with asbestosis won a settlement of 38 million yen at Tokyo District Court.

4) Eight ex-ship yard workers sued against Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd., claiming damage compensation for asbestosis. The case was favorably settled on 1997 October.

5) A surviving family of a deceased worker with asbestos-induced lung cancer sued against Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd. The case was also favorably settled on 1997 October.

6) A surviving family of a worker who had died of mesothelioma or lung cancer sued against Shikoku Electric Power Company. The case is pending.

Toward Elimination of Asbestos in Japan

A series of recent advancement in eliminating asbestos in Europe including UK provide highly encouraging drive for the same goal in Japan. At the same time, the objective might not be achieved if we fail to ride on the wave. If the use of asbestos should not been eliminated, the consequences would go beyond Japan, reaching other Asian countries or developing countries in general. Further activities against asbestos are urgent in order to leverage the favorable development in the Western Europe for global elimination of asbestos use.

In south Korea, an asbestos texture manufacturing worker was certified to be the first victim of occupationally induced malignant mesothelioma in 1993. In Taiwan, which had been the leading country in the sector of shipbreaking industry, a worker with asbestosis who had a job carrier in the industry was certified to be eligible for official compensation in 1996. In the Philippines, there are some reports suggesting significant health damage among a large number of workers who had job career in the US Navy base at Subic.

Currently, Japan's biggest labor union confederation, Japan Trade Union Confederation, takes a limited position toward asbestos; chrysotile can continue to be used under stricter control in the working envrionment, while the other types should be eliminated (as actually eliminated in 1995). This position is essentially the same as that of the Government and industry. We hope that our campaign started with invitation of Mr. Mick Holder will help break the blocked situation.

We will continue to report our activities in this newsletter or other media. If you find any interest or questions about our campaign and organization, please freely contact at Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center.

JOSHRC NEWSLETTER No.18 (March, 1999)

Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center (JOSHRC)
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