Tokyo Drops the Ball on Asbestos; Workers Pay the Price

Japan’s Environment Ministry made a recent announcement declaring that nationwide levels of airborne asbestos posed no hazards to human health–despite the fact that the air tests measured only one type of asbestos.
The air tests measured only chrysotile, or “white” asbestos. . Chrysotile continues to be mined and produced in Quebec and is shipped primarily to developing nations. The forms of asbestos that are causing the most serious health problems in Japan are the “blue” crocidolite and “brown” amosite varieties. These are classified as amphiboles, which are hard and shaped like microscopic spears. When ingested into the lungs and/or stomach, these tiny spears literally bore through the tissues of these organs from the inside out. As they do so, they may cause cells to mutate at the DNA level, turning them into malignant cancer cells, or mesothelioma.

Such amphibole asbestos was commonly used in Japan for the manufacture of vaulted ceilings and partition walls. Tests taken in November of 2006 near a demolished factory were declared virtually free of asbestos contamination by the Environment Ministry when tested for chrysotile. However, a second, independent test showed levels of blue crocidolite asbestos at nearly six times the officially accepted safety level for white chrysotile fibers. Representatives at the Ministry agree that testing should be performed for all six types of asbestos, but do not believe that current methods are accurate–despite the fact that such testing methods have already been used successfully and reliably in the U.S. and the U.K. In the meantime, another 45 people in Tokyo have been diagnosed with asbestos diseases.