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Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004

Asbestos use still widespread in Asia, as are its ills: expert

Staff writer

Asia needs to ban the use of asbestos and conduct studies on people who have become ill from exposure or asbestos-related diseases will never end, according to a specialist.

News photo
Ken Takahashi

A law largely prohibiting use of asbestos took effect in Japan last month, but few other Asian economies have taken similar action, said Ken Takahashi, a professor in the environmental epidemiology department at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu.

"The number of people with asbestos-induced diseases will increase in Asia in the future," Takahashi told The Japan Times. "We need to try to get more countries to stop using asbestos."

His concerns are at the center of a three-day conference in Tokyo that began Friday.

The Global Asbestos Congress 2004 brings together some 420 researchers, civic group representatives and relatives of people who have asbestos-related diseases from more than 36 countries to discuss problems caused by asbestos and their possible solutions. The conference was organized by Japanese civic groups and researchers.

Takahashi, an epidemiologist specializing in asbestos-induced illnesses, is to give a presentation on disease prevention in Asia on Sunday.

Asbestos is used in a variety of construction materials to make buildings stronger, better insulated and more resistant to fire.

But a large number of studies have linked the substance to lung cancer and mesothelioma, which causes malignant tumors to grow in the lining of the abdominal cavity or the pleura, the sac lining the chest.

Many industrialized countries have banned asbestos or severely curbed its use.

While asbestos exposure -- often occurring by inhalation at such places as construction sites -- has dropped in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, its use is on the rise in countries that include China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, the professor said.

Exact figures on asbestos use and the number of people with asbestos-related diseases are not available in these countries, Takahashi said. But he predicted the number of cancer patients there will rise.

Because mesothelioma has a long incubation period, ranging from 30 to 45 years, decades may pass before a victim is diagnosed with the incurable disease, Takahashi said.

In Japan, where asbestos exposure peaked in the 1970s, the number of people who have died of mesothelioma has increased in recent years.

The figure was 500 in 1995 but grew to 878 in 2003, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. About 70 percent to 80 percent of the victims were believed to have been exposed to asbestos, Takahashi said.

He estimated that 2,440 people a year will die of mesothelioma between 2035 and 2039.

Although Japan banned asbestos use in principle, construction workers may still inhale the substance when they repair or tear down old buildings, Takahashi said.

"We have to consider that asbestos-linked health problems will last for a long period of time," he said.

He feels strongly that all of Asia needs to ban the substance or strive to gradually cut its use, stressing that governments and researchers need to study patterns of asbestos use and the number of victims of the diseases the substance causes.

The governments should also reconsider whether exposure limits under the law are low enough to protect the health of construction workers, he said.

Some parts of Asia do not require health checks for workers exposed to airborne asbestos, and Takahashi said Japan can help its Asian neighbors establish better systems to supervise workers' health.

Since many people in Asia -- including doctors -- are unaware of the link between asbestos and diseases like cancer, education is also key, he explained.

"Not just researchers, but also nongovernmental organizations, media and people suffering from asbestos-related diseases need to inform the public of this problem from various viewpoints," he said.

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