Russia's Olympic Asbestos Policy
Six years ago, when Russia was awarded the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, familiar alarm bells started ringing in the IBAS office. With all the new construction which would be needed for the Games and knowing that Russia was the world's leading asbestos producing country, it was natural to wonder whether asbestos would be used in the construction of the stadia, arenas, dormitories and assorted buildings required for such a world class event. While Human Rights Watch has spoken out about abuses of workers and environmentalists have provided evidence of illegal dumping, the destruction of forests and the negative impact on wildlife, no one has commented on whether or not asbestos is being used in Sochi.1
Attempts to ascertain the current situation have been ongoing for a number of months. Wide-ranging enquires have been made including letters, faxes and emails sent to President Putin, Sergei Donskoi, Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Rinat Guizatoulin, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, and Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko, the Russian Ambassador to the UK. No one has responded.
As well as being frustrating this clampdown is puzzling. Information obtained by a Russian colleague suggests that the use of asbestos had been banned by stipulations contained in the Green Standard for the Olympics, which had been prepared by the Russian authorities at the request of the International Olympics Committee prior to the commencement of Olympic construction.2
The Green Standards document sets out international standards and requirements for construction materials and processes which had been approved for the Sochi Games. Paragraph 9 of this Russian language document details requirements for construction materials; sub-paragraph 9.3 includes asbestos on a list of prohibited materials.
If the Olympics asbestos ban is being observed in Sochi, then the Russian authorities are just one of a number of governments applying one set of standards for Olympic construction and another for other building projects. The Chinese authorities banned asbestos from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Asian Games;3 this in a country which leads the world in asbestos consumption in 2010, China used more than 600,000 tonnes of asbestos. India, the world's largest market for asbestos imports, banned the use of asbestos in the construction of the 19th Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010 even though elsewhere in the country over 400,000 tonnes were used that year.4
Clearly, given the fact that Russia and Brazil, the first and third largest asbestos producers, have, between them, been awarded the Winter Olympics 2014 (Sochi) and the 2014 FIFA World Cup (Brazil) and the 2016 Summer Olympics (Rio de Janeiro), there is interest in establishing whether asbestos will or won't be used. While it seems possible that Russia has decided to spare international athletes, foreign visitors and Olympic ticketholders from potential exposure to asbestos, the Brazilian situation remains even more opaque. It is easy to see why. If the Brazilian authorities admit that they have banned asbestos from their events, they are exposed as hypocrites for protecting some individuals but not others. If President Dilma Rousseff and her Government have accepted the need to safeguard the health of foreign visitors, why were no steps taken in 2011 to prevent a reported 185,322 tonnes from being used in Brazil and 134,122 tonnes from being exported. Enquiries made in Brazil have, up until now, proved fruitless. Perhaps, Brazilian citizens might wish to confront the authorities about these issues? The world has a right to know that when they come to Brazil for the World Cup, it will be soccer, sun and sand they will be exposed to and not asbestos.
And as for the Russian Olympics, if the Green Standard is being scrupulously adhered to by contractors, the Sochi Games will set a precedent for Russian society: it will reveal that life without asbestos is not only possible but preferable. How then will the Russian delegates to the May 2013 meeting of the Rotterdam Convention be able to refuse permission to include chrysotile asbestos on a list of hazardous materials? After all, if Russian asbestos was too dangerous to use in Sochi, surely it is too dangerous to use elsewhere.
March 1, 2013
1 Herszenhorn DM, Putin Faces Risks in Bringing Olympics to a Sleepy Resort. February 17, 2013.
Also see: Human Rights Watch. Race to the Bottom. February 13, 2013.
3 Kazan-Allen L. China Increases Asbestos Restrictions. February 27, 2011.
4 Kazan-Allen L. Why no Asbestos Use at the Commonwealth Games 2010? October 4, 2010.