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Link between local residents' illnesses and asbestos use at factories: Japan study

A photo of asbestos coating provided by the Tokyo Occupational Safety and Health Center is shown here.

An annual health study conducted by Japan's Environment Ministry since fiscal 2015 found that over 30% of applicants who lived near factories and other facilities using asbestos had developed symptoms caused by inhaling the material.

Such symptoms include what is called "pleural plaque," or calcification of lung tissues. Although these symptoms do not always lead to heavy diseases such as mesothelioma or lung cancer, the figure of "over 30%" should not be underestimated.

The Ministry of the Environment has continued to examine health damage caused by asbestos dispersed from factories and other facilities ever since numerous cases of mesothelioma were discovered among residents near a former Kubota Corp. factory in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, in 2005. However, even after health damage caused by asbestos had surfaced, there are many people who are not aware of having been in an environment where they were exposed to asbestos unless they are diagnosed with mesothelioma. Local governments also tend to stay inactive unless asbestos-related illnesses arise among residents.

A large proportion of applicants for the ministry-conducted survey repeatedly request to be tested across fiscal years, and there is the possibility that there are hidden victims of asbestos at risk of developing diseases.

Attorney Satomi Ushijima, an expert on asbestos issues, said, "It can be thought that there are still many residents who do not even know that there was a factory nearby. Information is not being thoroughly spread, especially in regions where the study has been conducted for only one to three years. The survey must be continued and the necessity of medical examinations should be explained."

In the city of Saitama, north of Tokyo, a man who lived approximately 300 meters away from an asbestos cement pipe factory died in 2013 at the age of 75 without having the knowledge of potential damage caused by asbestos. He claimed of pains in his chest in 2012 and was later diagnosed with mesothelioma and lung cancer. His symptoms, however, worsened rapidly and he passed away only eight months after the diagnosis. The man's 75-year-old wife commented, "I would like many people to be given examinations so there will be no more people who discover (their diseases) too late."

It will almost be 15 years since asbestos cases surfaced in Hyogo Prefecture. The number of deaths caused by mesothelioma is on the rise, and experts raise the possibility of an increase in the number of residents who show symptoms among those who lived near factories and other places dispersing asbestos. While advancing a structure for examining the presence of asbestos-related diseases, authorities should also thoroughly spread awareness among residents and continue efforts to grasp the reality of health damage.

(Japanese original by Ayumu Iwasaki, Science & Environment News Department)

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