Asbestos Olympics? 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



The announcement made on July 13, 2001 by the International Olympic Committee that Beijing had been elected as the Host City for the 2008 Olympics set alarm bells ringing in the IBAS office. Knowing that China is the world's largest consumer of asbestos, we wondered whether the “Green Olympics,” as they were being promoted, would be constructed with white asbestos?


Olympic "bird's nest" Stadium, Beijing.

Unfortunately, emails sent to the official Olympics website and the International Olympic Committee remained unanswered. As work on the Olympics progressed, China's reliance on asbestos increased. Between 2001 and 2006, nearly 3 million tons of asbestos were used; annual consumption increased by 35% over this period.

Asbestos Consumption in China & Worldwide1

YearChina    Global    China
(metric tons)(metric tons)% of Global

As official sources refused to disclose information on this subject, unofficial sources were contacted; these included scientists, academics, businessmen, trade unionists and grass roots activists. An unofficial consensus has emerged which supports the following statement: By official mandate of the Chinese Government, the use of asbestos in the construction of the Olympic buildings has been prohibited. If asbestos is not safe enough for the Olympic buildings how is it safe enough to be used elsewhere in China?

Current Asbestos Use

Where exactly is asbestos being used ….

Leading Asbestos-Consuming Nations (2006)

CountryAmount    Signatory toGlobal
(metric tons)ILO AsbestosRanking

Some of the top users are both producers and consumers such as China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil and Zimbabwe. There is only one country that mines asbestos but does not use it in any significant amount. In fact, in 2006, Country X exported 290,345 tons, 50,000 more than it mined.

QUESTION: Can you guess the name of Country X?

Leading Asbestos-Exporting Nations (2006)

CountryAmount% of GlobalGlobal
(metric tons)ExportsRanking
South Africa19,72516

ANSWER: Canada, of course!

An analysis of data from 2006 reveals that:

  • the total usage by the top 12 consuming countries accounts for 93% of global consumption;
  • asbestos markets in Asian and Eastern European countries account for the majority of global consumption (92%);
  • among the top 12 users, the 3 which have ratified the ILO Asbestos Convention2 use 25% (470,073 tons) and those which have not use 74% (1,385,530 tons) of annual global consumption;
  • six countries account for 98% of asbestos exports.

The fact that all twelve of the largest asbestos-consuming countries are members of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and that only three have ratified its Asbestos Convention suggests that even minimal precautions are lacking for most workers. In the three countries which have ratified the ILO Asbestos Convention, Russia, Brazil and Zimbabwe, the existence of occupational safeguards is doubtful. We can therefore conclude that, the global use of nearly 2 million tons of asbestos every year takes place in conditions which endanger workers and the public.

As the 2008 Olympics approach, it is an apposite moment to reflect on the ongoing risks posed by the continuing global consumption of asbestos. There is little doubt that this acknowledged toxin is used in conditions which not only endanger the health of workers, family members and the public but also contaminate national infrastructures and the environment. If there has indeed been an official ban on the use of asbestos in the Olympic buildings, many people will have been spared from hazardous exposures. Nevertheless, there are grounds for serious concern at the apparently high levels of continuing asbestos use in China and elsewhere.

April 10, 2008


1 All the data were obtained either from the United States Geological Survey website or by email from Robert Virta of the U.S.G.S

2 ILO Convention No. 162, Concerning Safety in the Use of Asbestos.



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