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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Major asbestos suit kicks off in Tokyo

Staff writer

What is believed to be the biggest asbestos-related litigation in Japan opened Wednesday at the Tokyo District Court with construction workers and relatives of deceased workers taking the stand to describe years of health problems that could have been prevented.

The 178 plaintiffs are demanding a combined ¥6.6 billion in compensation from 46 construction-materials manufacturers and the government for failing to take appropriate measures despite being aware of asbestos-related health hazards, including lung cancer.

"Many of my colleagues are suffering from asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma," Kazuo Miyajima, a former construction worker who was diagnosed in 2003 with lung cancer, told the court as the lawsuit got under way.

Pointing out that the government and manufacturers were aware of asbestos risks as early as 1955, the 76-year-old Miyajima argued that construction workers were treated unjustly and were considered "unworthy of proper care."

The plaintiffs are made up of construction workers, mainly carpenters and plasterers from Tokyo and Chiba and Saitama prefectures, and family members of workers who have died due to asbestos exposure. Miyajima told the court 84 of the plaintiffs have passed away due to illnesses induced by the toxic mineral.

"The plaintiffs do not have much time left," Miyajima said, urging the judges to act swiftly to acknowledge the defendants' liability.

The defendants, including manufacturers of construction materials containing asbestos, among them Tokyo-based Nichias Corp., did not make a statement Wednesday but revealed they would fight the claims and ask the court to dismiss the case.

According to the suit, which was filed in May, the plaintiffs were exposed to severe health risks stemming from inhaling asbestos while working at construction sites.

In demanding ¥38.5 million each in addition to enhancement of financial support for victims as well as better medical assistance, the plaintiffs claim the government and manufacturers failed to curb the use of asbestos because of its reasonable price and accessibility.

Asbestos was often mixed with concrete and water and sprayed on walls as insulation and fire protection. The government banned the spraying in 1975 but allowed partial use until 2006, nearly two decades after it was banned in other countries.

Hatsue Segawa, whose husband died of mesothelioma in 1998, told the court her husband suffered intolerable pain, and he often begged for death while being treated. She denounced the government and manufacturers for postponing preventive measures for years, adding the suit must shed light on the defendants' liability.

The Diet implemented a law in 2006 to provide financial support to victims of asbestos-related ailments, including a monthly allowance of ¥100,000 for treatment. But the plaintiffs have said this is not enough.

Faced with similar lawsuits, the government revealed plans this week to expand its biannual asbestos inspections to about 2 million buildings from the current 260,000, possibly starting in March.

The plan would cover almost all private-sector facilities in Japan.

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The Japan Times

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