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Mitsue Kawamura suffers from malignant mesothelioma, almost always caused by asbestos exposure. Mitsue Kawamura

Some experts question the accuracy of government surveys of asbestos in Japanese buildings.
Ko Fujimura/Flickr

TOKYO — For decades, asbestos was considered the “magic mineral” that helped Japan rise from the ashes after World War II. In 1974 alone, the country imported 350,000 metric tons of the fire-resistant fiber for use in residential and commercial buildings, ships, and factories.

The mineral turned out to be less than magic. Today, health experts estimate that more than 100,000 people in Japan will die of mesothelioma — a virulent form of cancer — and other asbestos-related diseases by 2040. Some believe the death toll will be even higher because the method Japanese authorities use to analyze building materials for asbestos has been deemed unreliable by scientists around the world.

The disputed method also calls into question the accuracy of two government surveys published in 2009 of structures that may contain asbestos — such as schools, reception centers, and nursing homes. The surveys, designed to protect workers and the public during demolition, renovation, and recycling operations, were carried out by untrained personnel, critics say.

“If the method is wrong, surveys don’t make any sense,” said Naoki Toyama, an environmental measurement expert at the Tokyo Occupational Safety and Health Center. “In Japan there have been many cases in which the analysis was not correct. There have been so many mistakes.”

At the end of September, a working group of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), composed of asbestos experts from 14 countries, met in Hawaii to draft a standard method to detect asbestos in building materials.

While the group has yet to issue a formal recommendation, ISO sources told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that the method commonly used in Japan will not be included.

“The [ISO] decided on a qualitative method that is completely different from the Japanese one,” Toyama said. “In other words, it was deemed not good. And we have to deal with this decision.”

According to a resolution passed by the working group, the recommended analytical method uses polarized light microscopy (PLM) to identify asbestos fibers and estimate their concentrations. Known both for its effectiveness and its modest cost, PLM is the primary method used in the United States and Europe.

Japan stiffened its asbestos regulations in 2006, setting a limit of 0.1 percent for asbestos in building materials — 10 times stricter than the U.S. limit. While the PLM method was included in the standard for the first time, two years later the Japanese committee revised the standard and removed PLM from it altogether. Instead, the Japanese Industrial Standard committee chose as its primary analytical method X-ray diffraction and dispersion staining phase contrast microscopy (XRD/DS-PCM), which critics say can’t detect asbestos fibers at concentrations lower than five percent or when other materials, such as talc or wallboard, are present. Most other countries use X-ray diffraction as a complementary method to quantify asbestos fibers only after the presence of asbestos has been confirmed.

Japanese method criticized

In 2008 the U.S. government formally urged Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to reintroduce PLM and use it as its primary analysis tool. U.S. officials said that use of the Japanese method “as the primary asbestos analytical tool may lead to increased risks to the public health, including an increase of public exposure to potential airborne concentrations of asbestos in Japan.”

That same year, the Japanese method was put to the test. The Japanese delegation at an ISO working group meeting was asked to analyze a set of asbestos-containing samples. The method failed to detect asbestos in six, or 40 percent, of 15 contaminated samples, according to a report on the lab results. A member of the delegation, Koichi Sakamoto of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, disagreed with the report’s findings. “At present we don’t have any evidence that the experiment failed,” he said, declining to elaborate.

American scientists and Japanese experts outside the delegation say the Japanese method is unreliable. It “will never match the speed, efficiency, accuracy, reproducibility, and cost of analysis of PLM combined with other techniques,” according to Gustavo Delgado, CEO of Forensic Analytical Laboratories in Hayward, California, and a member of the ISO working group.

Kevin Carroll, president and CEO of Tokyo-based EFA Laboratories Ltd., a commercial asbestos testing laboratory, said, “The failure to use an accurate asbestos testing method will undoubtedly elevate the incidence of asbestos-related disease in Japan. … The rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases will continue to rise.” Carroll — who uses PLM at his lab, among other technologies — said Japan risks losing international trading partners if it doesn’t switch to the more widely accepted testing protocol.

Norihiko Kohyama, a professor at Toyo University and a member of the Japanese Industrial Standard committee, defends the method, saying it reaches a level of accuracy that far exceeds that of the PLM, especially when asbestos is present in very small quantities.

“The PLM may be a good method, but so far we have always been able to identify asbestos with [XRD-DS-PCM], and it’s been sufficient,” Kohyama said.

At present, the XRD-DS-PCM protocol is used by most testing laboratories in Japan. Reiji Yoneyama, a spokesman for the Japan Association for Working Environment Measurement (JAWE), said the labs would bear a sizable economic burden if they were required to change the equipment they use to test asbestos. “If it became necessary to comply with the other countries, there would be many difficulties following the switch [to another testing method],” Yoneyama said.

Asbestos liability

The stakes are high for the Japanese. Japan is one of 52 countries that have banned or sharply restricted the use of asbestos. Because of the mineral’s toxicity, the European Union banned its sale in 2005. According to statistics released by the Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center, more than 3,500 Japanese are believed to have died in 2008 from asbestos-related diseases — many because of exposures they had to the mineral decades ago.

Fifty-year-old Mitsue Kawamura is dying of mesothelioma, a cancer of the outer lining of the lungs and internal chest wall — known as the pleura — that is virtually always caused by asbestos exposure. She has no idea when or how she might have inhaled the toxic fibers.

“People should know that even if they are leading a normal life now, what can cause them a horrible disease is right under their nose,” Kawamura said in a recent telephone interview. “I am angry because if the government had taken the right measures and asbestos hadn’t been where people live, today I’d be in good health and wouldn’t have to live every day of my life with fear of death.”

For more than 30 years, Kawamura worked as a nurse in a private clinic in Yamaguchi prefecture, in the south of Japan. She first heard about the risks of asbestos in 2005, when the Kubota Corporation admitted that about 10 percent of the workers at its asbestos-cement pipe factory in Amagasaki, near Kobe, had died of asbestos-related cancers.

The “Kubota shock,” as it came to be known, was the first sign of an epidemic that had been incubating for three decades.

“After they told me I was sick, I met many victims who, like me, didn’t know anything about asbestos and didn’t do any job related to it in the past,” Kawamura said. “The people who aren’t sick now should know … how scary this disease is.”

Asbestos-induced mesothelioma and lung cancer were recognized as occupational diseases by Japan’s Ministry of Labor in 1978, but a compensation plan for the victims of non-occupational exposure wasn’t set up until 2006, when the Asbestos Health Damage Relief Fund was established. Over the past four years, the Japanese government has spent more than 16 billion yen (about $190 million) in financial aid to those struck by asbestos-related diseases. Payments have gone to 5,892 victims or their bereaved families.

Hidenari Hane, a 61-year-old mesothelioma patient from Takayama, in central Japan, says he was exposed to asbestos while repairing automobiles at a Honda subsidiary about 40 years ago. He decided to sue the company he believes essentially condemned him to death. One possible source of his exposure was brakes, which contain asbestos. Hane’s case went to trial in March 2009. On December 1, a judge in Tokyo District Court found that Honda had failed to implement dust-control measures and ordered the company to pay Hane 54 million yen (about $640,000) in damages. Honda said it would appeal. Hane said he hopes the judgment will set a precedent that helps other asbestos victims.

“In Japan, public opinion is changing in favor of the victims and I think that from now on lawsuits will increase,” he said. “But a trial is physically and psychologically exhausting and you can’t bear it if you don’t have enough energy. So it’d be great if there was a precedent so that those people who are physically weak don’t need to undertake a trial.”

Last May, for the first time, a decision by the Osaka District Court held the government responsible for causing asbestos-related diseases and the deaths of three employees who after 1960 worked at several factories that used asbestos in the Sennan area.

The court ordered the government to compensate 20 sick workers and the relatives of the three deceased workers with 435 million yen (more than $5 million) for failing to have health and safety standards that would have protected the workers from asbestos exposure. The judgment has been appealed; meanwhile, similar cases are pending in Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kobe.

With its extraordinary resistance to high temperatures, asbestos played a major role in post-war construction in Japan, where frequent earthquakes pose significant fire hazards. Asbestos imports peaked during the country’s “economic miracle” in the 1970s, although some forms of the mineral — notably, chrysotile, or white, asbestos — were used as recently as 2005, according to Ministry of Environment. Some scientists argue that chrysotile is less harmful than blue or brown asbestos, which are no longer used, although the World Health Organization warns that all types of asbestos are unsafe.

Questions of accuracy

“Nobody knows what the situation with asbestos is like now, because no one has ever made a thorough investigation of it,” said Sugio Furuya, secretary general of Ban Asbestos Network Japan, a coalition of occupational safety and health groups, trade unions and individuals.

There is controversy not only over measuring techniques, but also over the accuracy of government asbestos surveys. Furuya and others say that recent surveys of buildings represent a half-hearted attempt to make amends for Japan’s cavalier attitude toward asbestos. According to a 2009 survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, only 5.5 percent of the 96,641 public facilities examined contain spray-on asbestos, with 4,698 more buildings yet to be examined. But critics say the results of the survey are suspect because it was mainly questionnaire-based and relied on the controversial Japanese testing method.

Some Japanese scientists believe a second survey, published last year by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, is also flawed. Critics say the survey, which examined 274,260 private buildings, analyzed only one-quarter of samples taken and lacked proper analytical techniques.

“The survey itself is absolutely inadequate as in Japan there’s no official qualification system [for asbestos building inspectors],” said epidemiologist Yuji Natori, director of the Asbestos Center, a Tokyo-based counseling center for victims of asbestos-related disease.

Natori believes that Japan needs a more comprehensive approach regarding asbestos-laden construction materials. “Japan is late in undertaking those measures and we need to learn from other leading countries,” he said. “Only if they are implemented, can we reduce the health hazards of the asbestos-related diseases.”

Japan’s standard to determine asbestos in building material products isn’t up for re-examination until 2013, but it may be revised sooner if the International Organization for Standardization accepts PLM as its approved method, perhaps as soon as next year.

Scilla Alecci is a reporter with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. This story is being co-published with the Japanese weekly Shukan Asahi.

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