Japan's Asbestos Analytical Method Fails to Meet ISO Requirements 

by Toyama Naoki
Occupational Health Consultant & Working Environment Measurement Expert,
Tokyo Occupational Safety & Heath Center



Japan experienced its most recent “asbestos panic” in 2005 when Kubota Corporation admitted to paying sympathy money to families of mesothelioma victims living in the plant neighbourhood. This caused a public outcry for government action on asbestos and Japanese regulators responded in by stiffening Japan's definition of “asbestos-containing material” to include all materials containing more than 0.1% asbestos.

At the same time, Japanese occupational and public safety and health laws were updated to stipulate that all asbestos analyses performed in Japan must use only the Japan Industrial Standard (JIS) X-ray diffraction/dispersion staining phase contrast microscopy analytical method (the JIS method).

The International Organisation for Standards (ISO) develops and produces a body of standards for business, government and society (http://www.iso.org/iso/home.html). The ISO standards development hierarchy includes Committees, Sub-committees and Working Group within each sub-committee. The Working Groups are comprised of international experts on topics deemed appropriate for ISO standards.

ISO Working Group TC 146/SC3 is a panel of international asbestos analytical experts now drafting the ISO Asbestos Analytical Standard (ISO DIS 22262-1). The new ISO standard is used to determine the presence and quantity of asbestos in bulk material samples. The standard is divided into two parts; Part 1 being the identification (Qualitative) section and Part 2 being the percentage content (Quantification) section.

Japanese representatives to ISO Working Group TC 146/SC3 have campaigned for the past five years to have the JIS method included in the new ISO Standard Asbestos Analytical Method.

Japanese delegates proposed to supply proof that the JIS method could reach the level of accuracy achieved by internationally-accepted microscopy methods. To do this, the Japanese delegates requested blind asbestos reference samples to compare JIS analytical values to the existing concentrations determined using PLM analyses.

The Japanese delegates were provided with the blind asbestos reference samples in late 2008 and were allowed one year to validate the sample results using the JIS method. The Japanese delegates submitted their comparative JIS analytical results to the Working Group in late 2009.

The JIS test results showed that the JIS method had failed to identify any asbestos content in approximately 47% of the positive (asbestos-containing) blind reference samples. The method also grossly underestimated the asbestos content in approximately 20% of the samples.

The JIS comparative test results stunned the ISO Working Group by the gross level of inaccuracy in the results. Nonetheless, the Japanese delegates claimed the JIS method was accurate enough to warrant inclusion in the draft ISO asbestos qualitative section (ISO DIS 22262-1: Part 1. Qualitative Method). The Working Group disagreed with this claim but offered Japan a second opportunity to re-analyze the blind samples to improve the accuracy of the method. The Japanese delegates declined this offer.

As a result of the poor JIS validation sample results, the ISO Working Group voted overwhelmingly in 2009 to reject the JIS qualitative method (by a margin of 10 to 1) and to allow only internationally-accepted microscopy-based (PLM, SEM & TEM) qualitative analytical methods in DIS 22262-1. It is important to note that the Japanese delegation agreed with the Working Group decision to accept the draft microscopy-based qualitative standard section, despite the fact that Part 1 does not include the JIS method.

As of September 2010, the ISO DIS 22262-1 Qualitative section (Part 1 of the standard) is proposed for advancement to ISO Final Draft (FDIS) status. The Working Group votes are anticipated in late 2010 and the method is expected to move to FDIS status in the ISO process. This is the last step in developing an ISO standard before ISO issues a Final ISO Standard. No technical method changes are allowed to FDIS documents from this point until the standard is finalised.

The Working Group has also offered Japan an opportunity to prove the JIS method sufficiently accurate in quantifying bulk sample asbestos content to warrant inclusion in the quantitative section of the ISO standard (CDIS 22262). The Japanese delegates have until December 1, 2010 to remove the microscopy section from the JIS method and prove that the XRD method alone is capable of a quantification accuracy which meets ISO requirements. According to sources familiar with ISO Working Group discussions, this is unlikely to occur.

If ISO (and world experts) rejects the JIS method completely in the new ISO standard, the Japanese government must then decide whether to accept ISO method asbestos analyses under Japanese law. This could have a significant impact on Japanese health and safety standards and have additional financial and legal implications.

The JIS method ISO validation results seem to show that Japan has historically required the use of an inaccurate analytical method to evaluate asbestos in its buildings and products. As a result, many thousands of Japanese buildings and products deemed to be “asbestos-free” may actually contain asbestos, thereby increasing the risk of public and worker asbestos exposures. The risk levels are also exacerbated as Japanese contractors turn to foreign suppliers for construction materials, particularly from Chinese, Indian and other Asian manufacturers who continue to use asbestos in their products.

This decision also presents an unquantified risk to Japan's already weakened financial health. The increased costs of public health insurance programs and the devaluations of Japanese real estate portfolios are issues that Japan cannot afford to address in 2010. Additionally, in June of this year the Osaka high court awarded twenty six Japanese asbestos victims 435 million yen ($4.78M) in their class-action suit against the Japanese government. The plaintiffs claimed that the government had failed to provide adequate asbestos health and safety standards for Japanese workers. The failure to use an accurate asbestos testing method will undoubtedly elevate the numbers of Japanese asbestos-related diseases and raises the spectre of additional class-action lawsuits. This may explain why Japan's ISO delegates have fought vehemently to include the JIS method in the new ISO Asbestos Analytical Standard.

Ultimately, the ISO Working Group will likely vote in December 2010 on whether to incorporate the modified JIS method in the new ISO standard. If JIS fails to achieve ISO acceptance, we may see Japan forced to rewrite its asbestos laws for the sixth time in five years. Maybe this time Japan will conform to international asbestos health & safety standards.

September 30, 2010



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