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Gardener compensated for lung cancer due to asbestos in serpentine rock

A piece of serpentine rock. (Photo courtesy of Naomi Hisanaga of Aichi Gakusen University)

SAITAMA -- A landscape gardener here has been awarded workers' compensation after it was recognized that he developed lung cancer as a result of inhaling asbestos in serpentine rock, it has emerged.

The decision, made by the Kumagaya Labor Standards Inspection Office in Saitama Prefecture, is significant because health damage owing to asbestos in serpentine rock is rarely recognized as a work-related accident. Moreover, it is not widely known that serpentine rock contains asbestos, suggesting that there may be many other similar victims across the country.

Serpentine rock can be found in numerous regions across Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, and often contains asbestos. According to the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, there has been a decrease in the amount of mined serpentine rock in recent years.

However, in 2007, 1.56 million metric tons were mined in Japan, and the rock is still in circulation as a stone material and as part of cement. Furthermore, use of serpentine rock is permitted, even though use of asbestos is banned under the Industrial Safety and Health Act.

Asbestos is seen on a piece of serpentine rock under a microscope. (Photo courtesy of Naomi Hisanaga of Aichi Gakusen University)

Compensation for the 71-year-old gardener was officially recognized in April 2017. According to investigations by the inspection office, the man used to buy serpentine rock at a quarry on the border of Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures two to three times a week between about 1970 and 1982, and then sell it on as garden rock.

The man also used to process the rock by chipping away at its surface using electric tools. Between 1992 and 2005, he would occasionally break up the stone as part of his landscape gardening job. He was unaware that the rock contains asbestos, and apparently did not take safety measures such as wearing a mask.

In spring 2015, the gardener was diagnosed with lung cancer -- after which part of his lung was removed in an operation. Suspecting that the cause of the cancer might be work-related, he applied to the Kumagaya Labor Standards Inspection Office for compensation.

The office examined some lung tissue removed in the operation, and discovered a level of asbestos several times higher than the level recognized as worthy of compensation. The inspection office judged that the asbestos in the serpentine rock, which he had been exposed to through his career, was the cause of the lung cancer and that he should be compensated.

Professor Naomi Hisanaga, of Aichi Gakusen University, who researches asbestos-related health issues due to serpentine rock, says, "It is extremely significant that the inspection office has recognized a link between the serpentine rock and the lung cancer. The rock is abundant in Japan, so it is possible there are many other victims out there. The government must inform workers about the risks of working with serpentine rock."

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