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Asbestos threatens Japan cleanup efforts, part one

In the first days and weeks following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, officials in that country and around the world were rightly concerned with securing the safety of residents and of stopping the leakage from the country's nuclear power plants. But now, as residents begin to clean up and rebuild, a new threat is emerging: asbestos.

Asbestos fibers were widely used in construction throughout much of the last century, considered to be somewhat of a "miracle material" that strengthened cement, insulated buildings, and protected against fire damage. In the 1970s, researchers began to connect the material with lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other deadly diseases, and use of asbestos dropped significantly.

The United States and several other countries acted quickly, banning asbestos soon after learning of its significant health risks. However, Japan was slower to take action, and didn't enact a universal asbestos ban until 2006. Because of this, asbestos is much more prevalent in Japan's buildings than in the U.S. and other countries, and the risk of asbestos exposure and related illnesses is much higher.

Because the U.S. and Japan were two of the biggest consumers of asbestos throughout the last century, the countries have faced similar issues while cleaning up after disasters, natural and otherwise. Following the September 11 attacks in New York, rescue and cleanup crews were at risk of asbestos consumption from the World Trade Center towers, one of which had been built with asbestos. Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency received a great deal of public criticism for its failure to properly monitor asbestos during disaster cleanup.

And in 1995, as the Japanese government worked to clear 170,000 buildings after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, it did nothing to limit the spread of to asbestos. As the materials' effects often do not show up for several years after exposure, it still may be some time before the country sees any widespread consequences.

We will continue our discussion of the asbestos risks facing Japan in a blog post later this week.

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

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