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    Diagnostic criteria for asbestos-related diseases to be fixed

    The asbestos scandal has been one of the biggest news stories of the year here in Japan. It doesn’t seem to be getting much attention from Western journalists here, though I suppose I could be missing things. I don’t think so, though, and it’s kind of bizarre, because the issue taps into the sorts of broad-brush changes in society that journalists like to play up–especially old favorites such as emerging problems with Japan’s national health system.

    This is from the latest from the Nikkei:

    The Ministry of the Environment announced on 4 November that, in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, it will establish an investigative committee to determine the medical criteria for diagnosing illnesses caused by asbestos. The committee’s goal is to set recognition criteria for confirming the presence of five kinds of ailments, including not only lung cancer but also mesothelioma and asbestos lung.

    On 16 November, the Environment Ministry will gather six medical experts and open the committee’s first meeting. The plan is for the committee to meet once a month and to have generated a report within a year. [I’m not sure whether they’re referring to the fiscal year here; if so, that would be by April.–SRK]

    The government is in the process of establishing new laws to give relief money to residents of areas upon which asbestos has had an impact on public health. The confirmation criteria will be centered around lung cancer. The government’s judgment is that it is necessary to put in place medically detailed criteria for adding [people to the list of] relief money recipients, given that [diseases such as lung cancer] can also be caused by smoking and other factors besides asbestos exposure.

    One of the growing number of televised specials on the asbestos problem, aired a few weeks ago, showed a thin, weak old man with mesothelioma (I never thought I’d need to learn that word in Japanese, much less use it so often) weeping piteously and telling the reporter, “I can’t believe that they already knew about these health risks in America twenty years ago, and our government is only getting around to doing something now.”

    There was special pathos there. The Japanese health system is designed around the idea that collectivism and federal involvement produces better care. People are aware that there are treatments available abroad that are not available here, and there’s the occasional scandal when a pharmaceutical company produces non-performing drugs. For the most part, though, people have tended to believe that the close ties between civil servants and health care providers ensured the best of both worlds–more standardized, more equitable, less expensive, more readily accessible. Japan’s high average life expectancy seems to bear that out.

    Japan’s last major public health scandal involving industry was, of course, Minamata disease; there was a feeling that, with the money and resources poured into the health care system by the former Ministry of Health and Welfare–and with federal agencies for just about anything and everything–that sort of thing couldn’t happen again. But it has. Bureaucracies in Japan love to keep records, but they don’t like to share information with each other. The asbestos scandal, in which key ministries and agencies didn’t communicate with each other, is like many of the hospital screw-ups that have become staples of the nightly news here: patient and personnel records often aren’t transferred, and when they are transferred, they often aren’t verified. It remains to be seen how many asbestos victims will qualify for compensation. The numbers reported vary widely, but it’s at least in the thousands.

    2 Responses to “Diagnostic criteria for asbestos-related diseases to be fixed”

    1. Gaijin Biker says:

      Dogs and Demons has a good bit on this, when Kerr talks about how no one in Japanese businesses or regulatory agencies really knows how much or what kinds of toxins are being dumped into the water or buried in the soil. It’s a “not my problem” attitude run amok.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Yeah, but of course, those cases were all scary near misses, even the glowing sludge under the junior high school (or something like that). I think the reason asbestos is getting so much attention is that people are actually dying because the government and companies were so negligent.

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