Ever since asbestos was identified as a carcinogen almost 30 years ago, governments across the developed world have grappled with the ugly aftereffects of this naturally occurring building and fireproofing material. Several large American manufacturers have been bankrupted by hefty asbestos liability claims, and the U.S. Congress is considering a $140 billion fund to pay judgments. Not so in Japan, where little was heard for decades about asbestos health concerns. That changed two months ago with the surprise disclosure by equipment maker Kubota Corp. (KUB ) that 79 of its employees had died from asbestos-related illnesses, setting off a parade of other companies coming clean with their own lists of asbestos fatalities.
So far, the Japanese government estimates that 6,000 people died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, between 1995 and 2003. Since that's only 1% of the number of asbestos claims filed in U.S. courts, many believe the tally could grow substantially in coming years. Whatever the ultimate toll, the government needs to take strong action now.
First, Tokyo should end the use of asbestos immediately. Although Japan banned the two most lethal forms of asbestos in the mid-1990s, government regulators have given industry until 2008 to stop using the most common form of the mineral in cases where there are no substitutes. But such foot-dragging -- even on a small number of products -- only risks further exposing Japanese citizens to this danger.
Next, the government must better coordinate the screening and collection of data on employees who worked around asbestos in industries such as shipping and building materials, and on residents of towns where asbestos plants were located. Quickly providing health care to affected workers, family members, and nearby residents while making asbestos data more easily available would begin restoring the government's credibility -- which has been eroded by reports that Tokyo turned a deaf ear to international research and its own advisory panel's concerns about asbestos dangers as far back as the mid-1970s.
Likewise, the government should bring in outsiders to help determine the extent of the problem. The head of an Environment Ministry panel studying the asbestos dilemma resigned earlier this month after disclosing that he previously had served as an adviser to the Japan Asbestos Assn. Such conflicts can only hurt the public's already-shaken trust and should not be tolerated.
Lastly, Japan must issue more detailed rules on the future renovation or demolition of the unknown number of buildings that contain asbestos. Improper handling could release tiny asbestos fibers into the air -- a further potential health risk. That's why Japan's response to this crisis must be quick. Unfortunately, since asbestos illnesses can take up to 40 years to surface, the resolution will be anything but.