Few Regulatory Teeth Limit Asbestos Use in Japan
Jan. 07, 1990
TOKYO (AP) _ Before their classroom walls were repaired last year, Tokyo University engineering students wore cloth masks for fear of health hazards from asbestos particles blowing out from cracks.
Their precaution reflected growing concern about the freewheeling use of asbestos in Japan, the noncommunist world's biggest user of the insulating and fireproofing material.
Nonetheless, widespread publicity about the dangers of breathing asbestos has done little to encourage government restrictions, in contrast to the tight limitations imposed in the United States and other industrailized democracies.
''It would be a catastrophe if a severe earthquake like the one in San Francisco hit Tokyo and destroyed buildings like ours,'' said Hikosaburo Yoda, a mechanical engineering instructor at Tokyo University.
''And think about how many buildings containing asbestos are demolished for reconstruction every day. It's even more scary,'' he said.
About 120 buildings are destroyed every day in Tokyo alone, the local government says, but contractors aren't even required to warn neighbors that tell-tale asbestos could waft into their homes.
Medical evidence shows inhaling asbestos can cause fatal lung damage, including cancer and other respiratory ailments.
Asbestos is not only a danger to workers regularly exposed to it, such as carpenters, shipbuilders and dockworkers, Irving Selikoff, a Mount Sinai professor of medicine in New York, told a recent symposium in Tokyo.
A small crack in a steam pipe's asbestos insulation could spread fibers spewing widely, he said. Selikoff urged Japan to cut asbestos consumption and tighten safety measures.
The mineral fiber is used in 3,000 common items ranging from walls and roof tiles to automobile brakes.
Japan considers asbestos contamination an occupational problem, and has compensated 65 victims - including 43 lung cancer patients, said Teruo Arakawa, a Labor Ministry spokesman. He had no figures on how many had died.
In workplaces handling the material, Japan allows 10 times as much asbestos fiber in the air as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The limit of 2 fibers per cubic centimeter for most kinds of asbestos was made a guideline in 1976 and a law last year, although there is no provision for penalties.
Japan banned the spraying of asbestos insulation in 1975, but government officials say materials containing asbestos are indispensable for fireproofing.
The Asbestos Institute, an industry group in Montreal, Canada, estimates Japan was the biggest user of asbestos in 1988 among noncommunist countries, consuming 325,000 tons. Brazil was next, using 190,000 tons. The Soviet Union was the largest consumer, using 2 million tons last year.
Tokyo Governor Shunichi Suzuki, who once vowed to make Tokyo asbestos-free, now says the material is safe ''as long as it's not sprayed.'' Asbestos insulates a new city hall building.
Japan has no plan to follow the U.S. move to ban all asbestos-containing material from public schools by 1996.
In 1987, however, the Education Ministry ordered 47,000 public schools nationwide to inspect sprayed asbestos in classrooms and gymnasiums, said Kiyoshi Sawamoto, an Education Ministry spokesman.
Only 1,366, or 3 percent, of the inspected schools reported they had sprayed asbestos, and 1,000 have removed it, he said.
More than 50 percent of Japan's classrooms and gymnasiums were built before 1975, when asbestos was widely sprayed, Sawamoto said.
Because it is difficult to learn the locations and condition of asbestos in buildings, even well-planned demolition is never safe enough, said Sentaro Yamazaki, a representative of Nippon Asbestos Abatement Industries Association.
''Once fibers are released in the environment, they cannot be retracted,'' he said.
Japan imports its asbestos, mainly from the Soviet Union, Canada and South Africa, said Katsumi Yamanaka, an executive of Japan Asbestos Products Industrial Association.
Asbestos factories are required to conduct air sampling twice a year and report the results, but regardless of the outcome, there are no provisions for penalties or mandatory health checks, said Jun Sakamoto, spokesman for the Environmental Agency.
There is some evidence that Japanese builders are becoming sensitive to the concern about asbestos are are voluntarily cutting back on its use.
For example, Ryoichi Kawakami, a carpenter in Kyoto, western Japan, said he uses asbestos-free material in housing jobs although it costs up to 30 percent more.
''My clients understand it,'' he said. ''Who wants a house made of something hazardous to your health?''
End adv for Sunday Jan. 7