The damage caused by asbestos exposure is growing. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the death toll from mesothelioma, which is heavily suspected to be caused by asbestos, was 953 in 2004, the highest recorded figure so far, and the number of cases certified as eligible for coverage under workers’ accident compensation insurance is also increasing sharply. Health damage due to exposure to asbestos will certainly increase rapidly in the coming months and years.
It has long been pointed out that exposure to asbestos has adverse health effects, and yet countermeasures were not properly taken. Asbestos-related measures implemented by the Japanese government include the following: In 1975, the regulation to prevent hazards from specified chemical substances was revised to prohibit asbestos spray coating in principle, and to make asbestos-related special medical exams mandatory. In 1988, a control density for asbestos was established. In 1995, the manufacturing, import, transfer and provision or usage of amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos) as well as products containing these types of asbestos was banned. The definition of an asbestos-containing material was changed from more than 5% to more than 1% asbestos content. Spray coating with 5% or less asbestos was prohibited. In 2004, the manufacturing, import, transfer, provision or usage of products containing asbestos other than amosite and crocidolite was banned. Finally, in 2005, a regulation for the prevention of asbestos hazards was introduced. In comparison with European countries and the United States, the Japanese government should be severely condemned for its delay in responding to the problem.
RENGO has dealt with the asbestos problems mainly by demanding the implementation of the following policies: the labeling of asbestos-containing products, the prevention of airborne asbestos when repairing and demolishing buildings, the promotion of the development of substitutes and the acceleration of reductions and restrictions on the use of asbestos. Since 2001, RENGO has adopted the stance of calling for a total ban on the manufacturing and usage of this cancer-causing substance. However, RENGO in fact should have taken a stronger response to the government, business organizations and corporations sooner, advocating a total ban on asbestos.
The government, of course, has conducted quite a few researches and studies on asbestos, primarily under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the Environment Ministry, but the findings of those investigations and studies have not been used to formulate concrete programs and regulations. Furthermore, though the government was in a position to be fully acquainted with asbestos-related damage in Europe and the United States, as well as asbestos regulations and countermeasures introduced by other countries, it failed to take appropriate actions until the mass media began reporting mesothelioma deaths among residents in the neighborhoods of asbestos plants. The government bears a grave responsibility for this.
Consequently, the culpability for the asbestos problem rests with the government. The government, industry and corporations should reflect deeply on the inadequacy of the measures they implemented and must take every possible step to ensure that people can live without anxiety. From now on, based on a reflection upon the inadequate response in the past, they should carefully listen to the opinions of relevant groups such as asbestos victims, their families, citizens, medical professionals, NPOs and trade unions so that asbestos problems can be tackled through the sharing of information and experience and in solidarity.
RENGO has compiled the following asbestos-related policy recommendations and action plans of trade unions. In the future, we will take an active social role as trade unions to fulfill those policies and programs.