The 2011 tsunami that rolled over parts of Japan left lingering fears about radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, the tragedy has left another sinister legacy: the presence of potentially carcinogenic asbestos.
Many tons of asbestos were spread across tsunami-stricken areas, according to this news video report by the Australian Broadcast Corporation (a transcript of the newscast is available on the Web page). While many fear the invisible fallout from Fukushima, it may be another poisonous substance closer to home that could prove even deadlier for some, notes the Australian reporter presenting the piece.
Rushing seawater ripped apart asbestos sheeting, fireproofing, insulation and other materials from buildings. The tide mixed with other debris, creating toxic mounds over hundreds of miles of Japan’s northeast coast. The deadly microscopic asbestos fibers eventually dried out for the wind to carry them away.
For about one year after the tsunami, many people rebuilding devastated communities labored without protective gear, leading to worries about future asbestos-related illnesses. Tests have so far confirmed 14 locations in which asbestos levels exceed the World Health Organization’s safety limit for the material. Japan only enacted a complete ban on asbestos in 2005, so even relatively new buildings may contain the material.
Japan relied on cheap, strong, and durable asbestos to rebuild and build up communities in the post-World War II years. In America, asbestos was also widely used in construction. Also in America, as in Japan, most people were unaware of the dangers of inhaling asbestos, which has been definitively linked to a wide range of serious illnesses, including asbestosis and mesothelioma, a rare but deadly cancer.
There is no safe level of asbestos exposure, according to the National Cancer Institute, and latency periods can be as long as 40 years between exposure to asbestos and the onset of mesothelioma symptoms.