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Regulatory loophole blamed for asbestos detected in bath mats in Japan

Coasters, which were gifted to individuals who made donations under the "hometown tax donation" of the Kaizuka Municipal Government in Osaka Prefecture are seen in this photo provided by the city.
A diatomite bath mat which was gifted to individuals who made donations under the "hometown tax donation" of the Kaizuka Municipal Government in Osaka Prefecture is seen in this photo provided by the city.

TOKYO -- A series of bath mats and other items containing asbestos have been discovered since November among "hometown tax" gifts offered by a local government in western Japan, as well as products offered by major Japanese furniture retailers, prompting large-scale recalls.

    All the products contained diatomite, a highly water-absorbent mineral material, leading some internet users to speculate that it is this ingredient that is behind the asbestos danger. Experts, however, have pointed out that "diatomite is irrelevant to this case."

    Asbestos, a group of mineral fibers, is cheap and highly fire-resistant. Around 10 million metric tons of asbestos has been imported to Japan, mainly between the 1970s and 1990s, and was widely used as building material. A person who inhales asbestos can develop severe health problems even decades later, including mesothelioma and lung cancer. The Japanese government revised the Industrial Safety and Health Act's enforcement order in 2006 to prohibit the importation, manufacturing, and sale of products including asbestos weighing over 0.1% of the whole object.

    Diatomite, meanwhile, is made up of layer upon layer of the fossilized shells of diatom, a type of algae. As diatomite is exceptionally water-absorbent, even sucking in moisture from the air, it is commonly used in construction materials and general consumer items. Although diatomite is mined, it contains barely any asbestos in its natural state.

    Several regulatory blind spots lurk behind how the recalled products got into circulation. The first such example is gifts to taxpayers who made donations to the Kaizuka Municipal Government in Osaka Prefecture under the "hometown tax donation" system.

    Kaizuka announced in November that some 15,000 bath mats and 2,500 coasters made by local firm Hori Mokkosho and handled by the municipality between August 2016 and February 2020 could contain asbestos. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the Kaizuka local government, which carried out inspections, the asbestos concentration was 0.38% for large bath mats, 0.61% for small bath mats, and 0.1-0.3% for coasters -- over the national government's regulatory limit of 0.1%.

    The items were made of extruded cement panels using materials that included diatomite, and the products' maintenance instructions recommended using sand paper on the surface to maintain absorbency. According to the health ministry, there is no issue when using the items as they are, but particles including asbestos could be released if the mats and coasters are sanded or broken. According to the municipal government, Hori Mokkosho contacted individuals who received the hometown tax gifts, and sent them replacement products that do not contain asbestos, among other measures.

    Diatomite, which is used as material for bath mats, is shown in this image provided by the Japan diatomite general goods manufacturing association.

    There is also the question of why the products contain asbestos at all.

    According to the health ministry, the company manufactured the bath mats and coasters by processing cement panels procured in 2001 from a firm in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture. This came before the revision of the enforcement order of the Industrial Safety and Health Act in 2006, which specified the 0.1% asbestos limit. Under the regulations of the time, products with asbestos under 1% of total weight were considered "not to include asbestos." Thus, asbestos items deemed legal at the time of their procurement were in storage for nearly two decades before being distributed recently as hometown tax gifts.

    Other similar cases have occurred in 2020. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. announced in September that gaskets for construction machinery shipped between 2006 and 2015 contained asbestos exceeding the 0.1% limit. In November, Komatsu Ltd. disclosed similar information. The health ministry said that all cases involved the distribution of products made before the regulations were bolstered. The ministry, which viewed the successive issues as problematic, made written requests to some 500 affiliated organizations to hold another batch of inspections on industrial products and material purchased and manufactured in and before 2006.

    There are more loopholes, including cases where products are imported to Japan from countries with lax asbestos regulations.

    Homewares retailer Cainz, which was informed of Kaizuka's faulty hometown tax gifts, voluntarily inspected about 50 of items which used diatomite like in the hometown tax gifts. It was then revealed that five types of products, including bath mats, contained between 0.2 and 1.3% of asbestos. It announced that it would recall about 290,000 articles in 17 categories. According to Cainz, these products were made at a contracted Chinese factory, and a representative commented, "It's unknown where in the process the asbestos was mixed in, and we are proceeding with inspections."

    The same issue has hit furniture maker Nitori Co. The health ministry announced on Dec. 22 that around 2.4 million items in nine bath mat and coaster categories, sold between 2016 and December 2020, possibly contained asbestos. The products, manufactured at a Chinese factory, were apparently imported to Japan, and Nitori has been recalling them.

    Chinese regulations on asbestos are lenient compared to those of Japan, and building material containing asbestos has been widely manufactured in the country. Although Japan has taken countermeasures at customs to prevent asbestos imports, Sugio Furuya, head of the administrative office of Tokyo-based Ban Asbestos Network Japan (BANJAN), said that there are cases where documentation for products made in China contain no reference to asbestos, raising fears that asbestos-tainted products are being imported to Japan.

    "The ban on the importation of asbestos to Japan is not guaranteed," he said.

    Furthermore, the bath mats and other items which were revealed as including asbestos all had diatomite in their basic ingredients, but a health ministry official explained, "We don't assume that asbestos was included in the diatomite. We believe that the asbestos got mixed in during the process of making the extruded cement panels."

    Furuya pointed out, "This issue did not happen because of the diatomite, but can occur in other products as well. We must create a system that sees to it that regulations are thoroughly implemented so that products containing asbestos don't end up in circulation."

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

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