The department of carcinogens

Asbestos in China - Who cares?

A stack of asbestos boards, which you can purchase here

This brief note is by Christopher Barden.

You can find more information about asbestos use in China on China Dialogue: A deadly white dust.

After I explain to my fellow Beijing courtyard residents why the carpenter cutting huge boards of asbestos in the middle of the yard, creating dust clouds of invisible asbestos fibers, is a really, really, really bad idea, the only response I get is from a woman literally cooking for her family right next to the asbestos party:

She says: ”中国人就这样“ (This is just how Chinese people are). And then continues to cook just two meters away from the carpenter taking a skillsaw to a board of asbestos.

I'm talking to HER and my neighbors, not "Chinese people." I never used the word "Chinese" or "China" or "this country"! (The default position is to assume that any foreigner is always speaking to the entire nation, I guess?)

I explained, this shit is really dangerous, will kill you with a nasty form of cancer, and I can tell you this from personal experience.

It killed my dad. When you learn what the term "pleural mesothelioma" means at the age of 17, it's a good bet one of your parents was in the construction or demolition business.

A couple people laughed. The rest were just blanks.

How could so many people be so blithely unconcerned about immediate, obvious dangers around them?

Ordinary residents are exposing themselves to levels of raw, friable asbestos, at incredibly high levels, and they don't care.

This single preventable form of cancer will undoubtedly create an impact on the health bills and heartache of this country that will be the first of its kind in the world.

And I'm living right in the middle of it!

To learn that his son is now living amidst exposed asbestos, blithely installed and cut up by apathetic zombies, my dad must be doing spit-takes in Heaven.

There are currently 28 Comments for Asbestos in China - Who cares?.

Comments on Asbestos in China - Who cares?

Do you think its like smoking? That they're just not yet aware of the dangers, or that the consequences are too far removed for them at the moment?

How could so many people be so blithely unconcerned about immediate, obvious dangers around them?

1. Chinese people only trust their government. If the government did not tell them it is dangerous, it is not dangerous. And the government has only their welfare in mind.

2. You foreigners are just saying this things to discredit China, to make China look bad.

3. There are asbestos in the US too. So why did you specifically discredit China for such an insignificant problem.

4. They are living right in the asbestos covered area and they are still alive. That proves asbestos is not harmful.

5. What ulterior motive you have in telling them asbestos is dangerous ? You must want to get their houses cheap.

6. Chinese has thousands of years of experience living with asbestos and, unlike you laowei, they know how to live with it. It is probably good for their health.

It's no different than trying to explain why, as happened to me last week, I wasn't prepared to let my little girl board the substitute school bus that had been provided as it had no seat belts at all. The regular bus not only has seatbealts but she has a child seat permanently onboard that I insist she's strapped into before they set off. When I said I would drive her the 25 mins to school rather than have her rattling loose on a bench I got the same incredulous reaction I always get when I try to get adults to put on seatbelts in the back of my car "It's OK, nothing will happen".

It is a battle that you can win converts in though. My office building caught fire a year or so ago. Far from evacuating the building, the managing agents told everyone 'not to worry about it and stay at their desks'. We, a British company, evacuated our staff. An hour later as smoke penetrated the risers the building quickly filled with smoke people were advised to quickly wet cloths, stay low and get out as quickly as possible - not our problem as we had already either sent people home or got them working elsewhere by then.

It is one of the few occasions that I have been absolutely prepared and happy to tell my staff that the Chinese logic here was completely wrong and that my British logic said that my first priority was to make sure my staff were safe - I'm happy to say that (almost) everyone agreed.

I guess the difference between the fire and the seat belt/asbestos examples is that people fail to perceive a 'clear and present danger' in the latter two whereas the fire and the people eventually fleeing the building was relatively obvious. Shame then that the local paper then ran a piece the next day how "IT workers bravely remained at their desks in the face of the building being on fire" and how one IT person decided to stay and take photos from directly above the fire because "it didn't appear dangerous to her". I'm not sure if this was before or after the fire service removed 56 bottles of propane from the burning restaurant.

Thanks for publishing this, Jeremy. I hope it can raise awareness. Stupidly, I didn't even realize how much asbestos there was in Beijing until last year.

When my father died from this, I remember the events quite clearly.

For about a year, he had constant coughing and was sick a lot.

Weeks of testing for this and that, including TB, never turned up any definitive clues. Nothing showed up on x-rays, because pleural mesothelioma is weblike, rarely showing classic tumors.

When it got so bad he couldn't breathe, an ambulance came and took my father to the hospital. This was a one-way trip.

At UCLA's medical center, they did exploratory surgery, opening up his chest. It took the doctor about one seconds to recognize the problem. A few minutes after the surgery, the doctor told us point-blank and quite coldly, "I'm sorry. This man is going to die from this." (I'll never forget the way he phrased it.) A few weeks later, a 51-year-old father and friend was gone.

The dangers of asbestos are no mystery, nor is the greed which continues to drive its production and use in many countries around the world.

Also, most people who won't have the luxury of getting medical treatment at places like UCLA medical center, and likely they and their families will never even know what killed them.

By the way, in Chinese, the word for "pleural mesothelioma", the fatal form of cancer virtually exclusively associated with asbestos exposure, is: 恶性胸膜间皮瘤.

Right now, I'm beginning to think of the hutongs where I live as “胸膜间皮瘤村。”

THIS IS A PREVENTABLE FORM OF CANCER, and the Chinese government is in a unique position to help millions, by creating markets for safer alternative materials, and educating people on the safe removal and treatment of this stuff.

If for no other reason, the future cost of asbestos claims against companies and organizations who knowingly expose people to asbestos should give the government and industry pause.

Getting ridding of asbestos will save lives and money.

How long have you been in the country? I find that attitude everywhere. Original post is a perfect analogy for my whole time in China.

Great contribution! True, in Beijing asbestos is everywhere. The "apathetic zombies" who are exposed to its deadly carzinogens are only able to realize their predicament and do something about it (get as far away from the dust as possible) if they are aware of the problem. Sadly, I think that reports in the official media raising such awareness are out of the question. Why? Political and financial costs would simply be too high.

Carl, I don't think the "attitude" is the problem -- the problem lies in the reasons why people have it.

"The default position is to assume that any foreigner is always speaking to the entire nation, I guess?"

Looking at the comments here it seems plausible that their general experience in speaking with foreigners would lead them to that general conclusion.

@Bill: agree every word of you except the spelling of 'laowai', not 'laowei'. :)

Although calling them 'brainwashed' will only result in similar but more severe responses as you described, I just cannot find more appropriate words, especially after I saw someone reading a book called "when China rules the world", which claims Chinese people are most satisfied with their gov, according to investigations.

Amazing, incomprehensible and sickening! Yes, Christopher, your dad is doing spit-takes. And this is just one more reason, in an on-going and long line of reasons why I do not venture from Taiwan, where I live, to da lu!

43,000 Americans have painfully died from mesothelioma or asbestosis from 1979 to 2001. If you added asbestos-caused deaths from other diseases, the number is more like 230,000! And deaths from asbestos still continue at 2,500+ per year. How can the Chinese so callously, blithely ignore these facts?

Is this a case of supreme ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, unjustified feelings of superiority, or just a horrendous disregard for life? I would suggest a combination of these and others.

But it makes pathetic sense when you consider the following. China has devastated, decimated its environment and ecosystems, and continues to do so. The devastation in China is, by orders of magnitude, the largest devastation the world has ever seen. The fact that this occurred over just 40 years further worsens the impact of this devastation. So, in this weird, tragic, disgusting sense, the disregard for asbestos in the environment has many precedents in China.

BTW, I have never emotionally understood why the Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Cambodians and Chinese continue to burn "ghost money" to honor their ancestors. Isn't the air pollution bad enough yet?

Shaking my head and then some!


Feel free to trust your government ever so blindly. Be my guest! Believe that our sole motivation is to discredit China. I have written freely about asbestos deaths in the US, so who is hiding what? "Insignificant problem", well, that is your right to ignore asbestos's carcinogenic properties.

So Bill, have you studied how people die in Chinese areas where asbestos is used and mined? Hint to Bill: ask the people in Libby, Montana about the WR Grace mine and how many of the townspeople died from asbestos-related diseases. Ask them how many years it took for the disease to manifest itself.

We laowai devils have lots of ulterior motives. LOL! "Good for their health"! Wow, how scientific!

Bill: Christopher, unbeknownst to you, has done the Chinese people a favor by recounting his painful experience.

Bill, argue with us laowai, as you will. It is your right. But if you continue to behave in such an unhealthy manner, perhaps your body will someday be screaming at you as you linger, dying with some fatal, agonizing disease. Your body does not like lies, Bill. Forget about us laowai. Think about your life, your body and your health.

Kind of reminds me of some lines from "In the Line of Fire".

"Frank, do you believe in the nobility of suicide?

No. But if you wanna blow your own goddamn head off, go ahead, be my guest."

If you want to commit suicide, Bill, be my guest. But you are not going to take me with you when you do!

Leave them to it less evil live fur skinning population to worry about, who cares about people who dish out horrible cruelty to innocent animals all for greed...

jerryz. I get this feeling that your sarcasm-meter is broken today.

Bill Rich

You are meddling with Chinese internal affairs!

Go back to your country!

And anyway, are you not concerned with the problem of overpopulation?

By the way, you can filter out asbestos particles when you suck the air in through a burning cigarette.

Its ok. China has too many people anyway... Less people less need for family planning policy, and the better the country would be.

If half of the country's population die off, then it would be so much more beautiful and space for everyone!



Unless I completely misread Bill's comment (and I'm pretty sure I didn't), he is a laowai and he was just being ironic...

Someone should turn their sarcasm detectors on. It is the red button on the left.

And may be Chinese are not safety conscious because there are plenty of them where they came from. Westerners need to value their own lives. They are not making as many of them nowadays.

@smh Agreed


Just because you know something, don't assume everyone knows it. Don't assume SOMETHING is the norm everywhere. It may pain you to see people getting exposed to asbestos and not knowing what they are getting, you need to patiently explain to them why it is bad. People (everywhere) are just uninformed or ignorant, they are not unreasonable or stupid.

Continue on...

The problem with many westerners is that they assume their culture, their way of life, their understandings of the world etc. is universal. I believe most westerners are not intentional condescending bastards, many of them simply assume everyone else should be just like them. That's the attitude you should all get rid of. The same can be said of the Chinese too when traveling to foreign countries.

How dare westerners assume that people prefer living healthily to dying agonizingly. Where do they get off?

Jeremy,why not submit your story to a chinese newspaper like 北京早报 to rise the awareness of the asbestos problem and its deadly consequence? don't you think it would much good than just rant on your blog?

Eyeopeningly scary...

In China demands for compensation would be met with laughter rather than a policy response, and legitimate concerns of the Chinese people are not respected. Living healthily is simply not an option, and most people in China know it and prefer an unhealthy dose of fatalism and escapism to attempting to change the status quo.


Just to clarify, most of my fellow residents are aware that asbestos is dangerous. The worker doing the cutting had no idea, but (and I found out more about this yesterday) most of the residents DO know it's dangerous.

The ones who do know its dangerous simply don't care enough, or are not motivated enough, to do anything about it, such as to refuse to allow, or even bother to say anything, about clouds of the stuff to be set airborne outside their front doors.

Believe me, I've tried to explain several times to my landlord and several neighbors that we should remove the extant asbestos boards long ago installed, which are now coming apart.

But to see new boards of asbestos actually being cut-up with electric saws in a sort of textbook case of "Not a Good Idea."

I keep my windows on that side firmly shut and sealed, and am actively looking for a new apartment.

P.s. At no point in my conversation with my neighbors, did I identify myself as a "Westerner" or suggest that not wanting to get lung cancer was a particularly "western" concern or value. I told my neighbors, "Trust me. This stuff killed my father. It's dangerous. Please look it up online if you doubt what I'm telling you".

Canadians are Westerners too (right?) and they are actively mining and exporting asbestos to anyone will buy it.

This is not an east/west or china/foreign issue.


Then I must say those people are indeed stupid and hopeless. If they don't care about their own health, too bad. It is their loss.

sounds like a blue collar chip on the shoulder thing...what neighbourhood do you live in again?

I live in Beijing (5 years now) and have a family. I work in a fairly modern office building, and a similarly modern apparement building. What's the daily risk of exposure?

Sounds like anyone renovating a unit would be allowed to use raw asbestos. And we've all walked through construction sites on time or another... whether that be whole blocks or small hutongs...

This is pretty worrying...

There's an answer, not that I fully believe it: link

In Beijing apparently it’s forbidden to use it in new buildings, but not the rest of China… At least the buildings are supposed safe… but you never know with renovation material….

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