China is the world’s number one consumer of asbestos. Rapid industrialization has created a seemingly insatiable demand for the dangerous substance.
Because even though China is also the second-largest producer of asbestos - with factories and mines located throughout the country - it can’t seem to supply enough domestically to provide for its own enormous construction needs. They have to import more from Russia.
The China Chrysotile Association says record amounts of the material have been used in the nation over the past decade and the group claims that any alternative would be less safe. The capital city of Beijing has actually prohibited the use of asbestos in construction, but it still appears in new buildings all over the rest of China.
It’s also used in products like roofing materials, gaskets, and brake pads. Recently, China made news when it illegally shipped construction materials containing asbestos to Australia where the substance is banned. In the past, China even manufactured and exported tens of thousands of cars containing asbestos-laden parts, all of which they were forced to recall.
The peak of asbestos use in China has come later than that of many industrialized and Western countries like the United States. Consumption in the U.S. peaked in 1973 whereas China didn’t begin using asbestos extensively until the late 1970s. The long latency period of asbestos-related diseases means that China has yet to face the full deadly consequences of its asbestos addiction.
According to the International Labor Organization, Chinese workers already die at a higher per capita rate than workers in any other country, and China’s widespread use of the known carcinogen will only add to those numbers. Despite new government regulations and workplace safety measures, standards appear to be enforced haphazardly throughout the nation, even less in smaller, family-owned factories.
“In the future, China will face a public health crisis triggered by the use of asbestos,” says Li Qiang, director of China Labor Watch.
“The guidelines that China's government has put forward to protect workers do in fact offer workers protection. But the challenge is Chinese officials don't have any way to effectively implement them. Factories flagrantly fail to respect Chinese law.”
The country’s asbestos industry lobbying group, the China Non-Metallic Minerals Industry Association, says that those who tout the dangerous effects of asbestos are biased or exaggerating. They also state that the amount of asbestos used in the country has decreased since peaking in 2012 at 600,000 tons per year.
China mines over 50% of the asbestos it produces in a poor remote province named Gansu. The company responsible for most of the production there, Yuanda, has been praised by China’s top leaders, especially for their international contracts and ties with the overseas market.
Yuanda is the same company that was investigated last year by the Australian government for supplying roof panels which contained asbestos to contractors for the construction of the Perth Children’s Hospital.