[FOUNTAIN]The alarm over asbestos

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[FOUNTAIN]The alarm over asbestos

“He was a father who cherished his family. He always spent his evenings happily with his family. On holidays, my mother prepared lunch and we would go on picnics. However, 10 years after retiring from the company he worked at for 30 years, he was hospitalized due to chest pains. His disease was mesothelioma ― cancer. In his last days, it was so painful that my father couldn’t endure the pain without using drugs.”
This is from last September’s reader’s column in the Asahi Shimbun, written by a housewife in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. The company her father worked for had many workers that died of the disease. The reason was that workers had been inhaling asbestos from a nearby construction materials factory. This is just a part of the asbestos fear that fell upon the Japanese island last year.
Asbestos is a natural mineral. The long and thin fibers do not wear out easily, nor do they burn. It is just like its namesake, a Greek word that means “inextinguishable.” For this reason, it has been known as a “miracle mineral” since it was discovered 4,000 years ago. It is used in over 3,000 materials and was heavily used in the construction of buildings. They say it is hard to find a substitute for asbestos in brake parts.
However, asbestos has two faces. When it is absorbed into the human body in large amounts, it turns deadly. Asbestos fibers do not dissolve inside the body and irritate the membranes surrounding the lungs and other organs. The mesothelium is a membrane that lines several body cavities and asbestos often causes cancer in it. The incubation period for the disease is usually 30 to 40 years, and no treatment has been found yet. This is why asbestos is known as a “silent time bomb.”
In Japan over 700 people died of asbestos poisoning last year. The Ministry of Environment estimated that the number of sufferers will increase and about 50,000 people will die of mesothelioma. Those numbers are based on the fact that asbestos was used heavily in construction during rapid development from 1960 to 1970. It is no wonder that a warning phrase was coined: “Tragedy follows asbestos.”
The aircraft carrier Clemenceau, the pride of the French navy, drifted the open seas for more than two years after being decommissioned in 1977, unable to find a place to be dismantled. President Jacques Chirac ordered the ship to return to France last month since every shipbreaking yard refused to accept the Clemenceau, which contains a huge amount of asbestos as insulating material. Asbestos made the aircraft carrier more fearful than its launching. This alarm bell also rings for the future of Korea.

by Oh Young-hwan

The writer is a deputy political news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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