Asbestos Poses New Threat After Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami

While the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is still affecting hard-hit areas in Japan, residents searching through the wreckage they once called home are faced with yet another health threat:  the nearly invisible and odorless cancer-causing fiber asbestos. According to the Associated Press, while levels of asbestos remain low, they are expected to rise drastically as more cleanup crews begin the removal of debris, shaking loose the asbestos fibers that were once used so widely as an insulation and fire-retardant. Initially, asbestos was not a major issue, as the ruins were wet and the dangerous asbestos fibers were settled making them less likely to break off and become airborne. Conversely, time has passed and the rubble is drying out making the threat of asbestos exposure more severe. This airborne peril, overshadowed by a leaking nuclear plant, can cause serious health risks to people in contact with it.  “There are a lot of people going back into the rubble to search for valuables and photos,” Takuo Saitou, a Sendai spokesman for a group dedicated to tackling defective home issues in Northern Japan. “There are people not even wearing masks. This is like a suicide act; we want people to know this is a problem,” Saitou told the AP. Exposure to asbestos has been linked to serious health issues such as asbestosis and more severely, mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is an aggressive lung cancer with a latency period of 20 to 50 years. Since the cancer remains latent for decades, once a patient is diagnosed with mesothelioma, the cancer is usually too advanced, making conventional treatments essentially useless. Asbestos issues are no stranger to disasters like the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.  According to the article, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was criticized for the way they handled the asbestos problem after the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11 2001, and then again in 2005 due to their poor monitoring of asbestos levels in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. More recently, there has been an asbestos crisis in Alabama after the slew of tornadoes left hundreds dead, and even more homeless. Japan also faced a similar issue in 1995 after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Kobe, killing more than 5,100 people.  As cleanup crews worked to clear waste from 170,000 damaged buildings, the government did nothing to enforce the use of protective masks, nor did they immediately monitor asbestos levels. Learning from their mistakes with Kobe, the health ministry has already issued pamphlets outlining safety guidelines and distributed 90,000 masks in the hardest-hit areas of Japan. The environment ministry issued recommendations for asbestos – contaminated material removal; however, it is unsure at this time if it is being enforced, reports the AP. Clearing away an estimated 25 million tons of ruin is a daunting task for the cleanup crew, who are working long, hard hours to restore their city. These workers, struggling through a sea of rubble and remains of what once was, are urged to take precautionary measures by wearing face masks to protect themselves as best they can from inhaling the toxic asbestos dust that blankets the prefectures of Japan. Reference: Associated Press. (April 27, 2011) "Asbestos, Japan tsunami's other hidden danger." Retrieved May 1, 2011 from Fox 12 Idaho. Previous: Former Pipe Fitter with Mesothelioma Awarded $90 Million Next: Asbestos Export Defense Draws Fire Admist Campaign