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Asbestos threatens Japan cleanup efforts, part two

Earlier this week, we wrote about the latest threat to the Japanese people as they work to clean up after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Understandably, the Japanese government has not devoted much time and energy to the growing threat of asbestos, instead focusing on securing nuclear plants and caring for now-homeless residents.

However, several groups have begun to call attention to the issue in Sendai and other hard-hit parts of the country, arguing that residents and cleanup crews are likely being exposed to dangerous quantities of the toxic fibers, potentially resulting in widespread diagnoses of mesothelioma and other illnesses in the years to come.

Asbestos was not a concern in the first weeks following the tsunami, when the damaged buildings were wet and the debris was lying immobile. Now, however, as cleanup crews haul away the wreckage of destroyed homes and businesses, asbestos-containing dust has begun to fill the air across much of Japan.

In Sendai, a private company has begun offering asbestos testing and analysis to residents and emergency cleanup crews. In one area near a collapsed building, the company reports an elevated density of 2 asbestos fibers per liter. While this is significantly lower than the country's environmental safety standard of 10 fibers per liter, it is expected to rise significantly as crews shift, transport and remove the rubble.

Japan's environment ministry has enacted recommendations for the disposal of asbestos materials, but they are likely not being enforced during this chaotic time. Officials in some of the most damaged parts of the country have admitted that they are not currently focused on the threat of asbestos and its effects. However, residents and cleanup crews continue to move through the debris, many without protective masks covering their faces. Wind and cleanup efforts shift the rubble, causing dust and particles to fly through the air and into the lungs of all in the area.

According to Takuo Saitou, an attorney in Sendai, the problem is much more widespread and potentially dangerous than most residents think. "There are a lot of people going back into the rubble to search for valuables and photos," he said. "There are people not even wearing masks. This is like a suicidal act."

Source: Associated Press, "Asbestos, Japan tsunami's other hidden danger," 27 April 2011

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