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Japan gov't relief funds for asbestos going unused due to few lung cancer certifications

Asbestos coating on the ceiling of a building is seen in this photo provided by the Tokyo Occupational Safety and Health Center.

TOKYO -- The amount of Japanese government relief funds for health damages caused by asbestos set aside for the public has risen in recent years, with up to about 78.9 billion yen (about $736.93 million) going unused as of the end of fiscal 2018, it was revealed.

A Mainichi Shimbun interview with Japan's Environment Ministry and other sources found that there is the possibility that the funds are not being used to their capacity as lung cancer patients have been slipping under the radar. While 15 years have passed since asbestos cases surfaced in western Japan, involving two fatalities from mesothelioma among residents near a former Kubota Corp. factory in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, in 2005, the relief system for asbestos victims is being called into question.

The Japanese government established a foundation in 2006 through the Act on Asbestos Health Damage Relief in order to aid residents who developed mesothelioma and lung cancer among other diseases caused by asbestos and who do not qualify for work-related disease compensation. Medical expenses, medical treatment allowances of about 100,000 yen per month, and other benefits are distributed to certified patients acknowledged by the national government based on medical diagnoses. A total of about 46 billion yen had been distributed to certified patients as of the end of fiscal 2018.

Up until now, the national government has contributed a total of 38.6 billion yen and prefectures across Japan have added a total of 9.2 billion yen to the foundation, according to the Ministry of the Environment. Several billion yen is collected annually from all businesses that cover work-related accident insurance for workers, and a further increased amount is collected from asbestos-related firms.

The relief fund balance, which totaled 32.3 billion yen at the end of fiscal 2006, continued to increase year by year and has remained at a large amount of nearly 80 billion yen since 2016, despite reductions made in business contribution payments from fiscal 2014.

The drastically low number of those qualified as lung cancer patients, which had initially been predicted to reach around the same figures as mesothelioma patients, lies behind the increase in surplus relief funds. The number of certified lung cancer patients as of the end of May in 2020 was 2,089 people, about one-sixth of certified mesothelioma patients, which totaled 12,627. Unlike mesothelioma, lung cancer can be triggered by causes apart from asbestos, such as smoking. Therefore, it seems that there are people who do not apply for relief benefits even if they develop lung cancer, and there are also many patients whose symptoms are not recognized as asbestos-related even if they apply. Nonetheless, international research shows that the death toll of those with lung cancer originating from asbestos is more than double that of mesothelioma patients.

Meanwhile, there are also many complaints regarding the relief benefits specified in the law, as the amount is generally smaller than work-related compensation, and there is no pension for bereaved families like workers' compensation. Medical treatment for mesothelioma is especially difficult, and there are several cases where a patient cannot continue to work after their health deteriorates rapidly, leading to their death within one or two years. Patients and bereaved families claim that they cannot support their lives under the current circumstances.

Masahide Sakamoto, an environmental economics professor and expert on asbestos issues at Senshu University, commented, "Surplus funds have amassed to nearly 80 billion yen because lung cancer patients could not be certified properly and there are holes in the system. The qualification criteria for lung cancer patients should be reviewed and consideration should be made for the benefits to be upgraded to a level that enables minimal living standards."

Regarding the large amount of surplus funds and a review of the relief system, the Environment Ministry commented that it does not think that any response is needed at the moment.

(Japanese original by Mirai Nagira, Science & Environment News Department)

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