From: Associated Press
Published July 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Says 17 Employees Died after Handling Asbestos

TOKYO — Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. said Wednesday that 17 of its employees who had handled asbestos in recent decades had died, while six others were still receiving medical treatment.

The announcement is the latest revelation in an expanding number of deaths and illnesses linked to asbestos pollution. In recent weeks, about 20 Japanese companies have reported more than 350 deaths possibly linked to the carcinogenic material, sending government agencies scrambling to assess the depth of the problem.

Industrial equipment maker Kubota Corp. last month was the first to reveal that 79 workers at its asbestos-producing plants had died over several decades.

Questions from local reporters about allegations that residents living near the factories had fallen ill with asbestos poisoning prompted Kubota to launch its own investigation into illnesses and deaths linked to the material. The results of the inquiry led to the public announcement and compensation for workers and three residents, the company said.

The Japan Asbestos Association then asked all 24 member companies to investigate past health problems. The industry group said it would publicly disclose any findings. The Trade Ministry is also questioning 65 building material manufacturers for reports on contamination.

Mitsubishi Heavy said Wednesday that 17 former employees had died of mesothelioma -- a cancer of the lining of the chest cavity, lungs or stomach only known to be caused by asbestos -- and other lung diseases since October 1980.

Six more employees were receiving medical treatment for asbestos-linked lung problems, said Hideo Ikuno, spokesman for Japan's largest comprehensive heavy machinery maker.

Most of the affected employees had handled asbestos at Mitsubishi Heavy's shipyards, including those in Nagasaki and Shimonoseki in southern Japan and Kobe in western Japan, as well as in factories producing thermal insulation for piping and power plants and buildings, Ikuno said. He said the company had already paid out compensation to those who fell sick or the families of those who died.

Mitsubishi Heavy said it restricted the use of asbestos in 1975.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber that when broken down into dust is easily inhaled. It was widely used in Japan as insulation and in roof tiles up until the 1980s.

While highly carcinogenic types of the material -- so-called blue and brown asbestos -- were banned in Japan in 1995, other forms of asbestos were not outlawed until last October.

In the United States, lawmakers are debating whether to set up a trust fund to compensate people sickened by exposure to asbestos. Legislation for a US$140 billion (euro117 billion) fund would shield manufacturers and insurance companies from multimillion-dollar lawsuits filed by people with asbestos-related diseases -- there are some 600,000 claims in U.S. courts. Past asbestos lawsuits bankrupted Owens Corning Fiberglas and W.R. Grace, and left sick people with no way to pay their medical bills.

About 50 former workers at U.S. naval bases in Japan have sued the government for compensation for failing to protect them from asbestos on the job.

A total of 663 people have been recognized by the government as eligible for special workers' compensation payments for exposure to asbestos.

Source: Associated Press

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