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Surging asbestos use in Asia creating slowly ticking health time bomb

Use of asbestos is surging in many areas of Asia that are undergoing rapid development -- a trend that is expected to cause a future spike in asbestos-related ailments such as mesothelioma and lung cancer. Researchers in Japan and elsewhere are now underscoring the need for countermeasures.

    Takumi Kishimoto, the 63-year-old deputy director of Okayama Rosai Hospital, visited a thermal power plant in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar in September 2011. He recalls being left speechless at the sight before his eyes as he thought, "I never imagined it was as bad as this."

    Old, damaged asbestos heat insulation material had been discarded on the floor, while bags bearing the label "asbestos" were casually piled up all over the place. And none of the young workers in the dusty working area were wearing masks.

    Kishimoto, a specialist in mesothelioma, has visited Mongolia every year since 2010 at the request of doctors in the country, diagnosing mesothelioma cases and providing instruction on methods of treatment. It is believed that the use of asbestos is surging as economies in Asia develop, but the total amount used including processed products remains unknown. Knowledge about the dangers of the material, meanwhile remain insufficient.

    "At some point or other, we are likely to see a sudden rise in damage to people's health," Kishimoto says.

    Use of asbestos surged in Asia from around the latter half of the 1990s. A U.S. study found that China topped consumption of asbestos in 2013 at 570,000 tons, followed by Russia at 432,000 tons, India at 303,000 tons, Brazil at 181,000 tons and Indonesia at 156,000 tons. Countries in Asia appeared among those in sixth to 10th place, including Vietnam and Thailand.

    Use of asbestos was totally banned in Japan following the "Kubota Shock" of 2005, in which it was learned that a large number of mesothelioma cases had occurred among residents living around Kobota Corp.'s now defunct Kanzaki plant in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. Currently, the only countries in Asia to have completely banned the use of asbestos besides Japan are South Korea and Singapore. This stems from the fact that asbestos is a cheap, durable building material, and that countries have failed to advance in introducing regulations.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related ailments. In June last year, an international academic organization advised that such ailments be listed alongside AIDS and malaria as global medical issues.

    Asbestos-related diseases surface, on average, 40 years after the person inhales the asbestos -- hence their reputation as "slow time bombs."

    Ken Takahashi, 59, a professor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan, who belongs to the same academic organization, commented, "In Asia as a whole, we expect damage incomparable to that in Japan. We need to find out the state of damage and quickly create a system that can provide apt diagnoses and treatment."

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