TOKYO -- Following the highly-publicized discovery of asbestos in bath mats, coasters and other items distributed in Japan late last year, the issue of the highly carcinogenic mineral fibers still being contained in a variety of products has caused significant concerns among consumers in the country.
Behind the problem lies the fact that asbestos that was imported in bulk in the past remains in circulation in Japan even today and products containing asbestos are imported as they slip through regulatory walls. The threat posed by asbestos-laced products is not just limited to items containing diatomite, a highly water-absorbent mineral material.
Major hardware store Cainz announced in December last year that approximately 290,000 products including bath mats and soap dishes that were sold in May 2018 and beyond possibly contained a level of asbestos exceeding the regulatory criteria. Furniture maker Nitori also decided to recall around 3.55 million similar products sold from 2016. All these items pose the risk of dispersing asbestos if they are damaged, and the companies are calling out for consumers to stop using them. Items with the same problem were found among those sold at 100-yen shops (like dollar stores or pound shops) and other outlets.
Asbestos is a type of mineral that is highly durable and fire-resistant, and has been widely used around the world. However, after it emerged that inhaling the fibers can cause serious health issues such as mesothelioma and lung cancer -- even after a decades-long latency period -- one country after another across Europe began to ban the use of asbestos from the 1980s. In Japan, the use of asbestos has been prohibited since 2006. So why are products containing asbestos still being found in circulation?
The discovery of asbestos in bath mats and other items came following an investigation conducted by a local government that used those products as a gift for people who donated to the city as part of the "hometown tax" system.
The Kaizuka Municipal Government in Osaka Prefecture, western Japan, adopted diatomite bath mats and coasters as gifts for people who donated to the city under the hometown tax scheme from 2016. The products were manufactured at a carpentry shop in the city. Diatomite is made up of layer upon layer of the fossilized shells of diatom, a type of algae, and is highly water-absorbent, even sucking in moisture from the air. Diatomite began to be used in products from around the mid-2000s and gradually became popular. The Kaizuka government became the nation's first to adopt diatomite products as its hometown tax gifts, and about 15,000 bath mats and some 2,500 coasters had been shipped by February 2020, making them hit products.
In the early 2000s, when the carpentry shop tried to dispose of the surplus of extruded cement panels it used in making the bath mats and other products, a garbage collector asked the shop to check if asbestos was contained in the panels. While diatomite -- which is produced from the earth -- is said to contain almost no asbestos, the panels contain other materials, and there are cases in which asbestos is suspected to have made its way into those panels during the production process.
According to the municipal government, an investigation of the panels by the carpentry shop did not detect asbestos exceeding the national government-set regulatory criteria of up to 0.1% of the weight of the product. However, the city decided that it "should respond to the matter carefully as a local body that handles gifts (for the hometown tax donors)," and conducted an examination on its own. As a result, asbestos of up to 0.61% of the weight of the product was detected in those panels.
The extruded cement panels that the carpentry shop used were produced by a now-defunct company in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, in southwestern Japan, in 2001. That was before the enforcement order for the Industrial Safety and Health Act was revised in 2006 to ban the use of asbestos exceeding 0.1% of the weight of the product. Up until then, goods containing asbestos of up to 1% of the weight of the product were billed as "asbestos-free." So in the Kaizuka city's case, the extruded cement panels that were manufactured before the legal revision ended up being processed and distributed even after regulations were tightened.
Due to the long latency period, asbestos is called a "silent time bomb." According to statistics collected by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 1,512 people died from mesothelioma in Japan in 2018 -- more than three times the figure in 1995 when the government began keeping the statistics.
(Japanese original by Mirai Nagira, Science & Environment News Department)