Asbestos is a commonly used material in China that may be more dangerous than formaldehyde. So why do so few people talk about asbestos in China?
One day a few years ago, a Chinese friend of mine asked me about jiaquan (甲醛). “Huh?” I had to look it up. Turns out it means “formaldehyde.”
At that point, I started to realize how many people in China are concerned about formaldehyde—and for good reason. Formaldehyde is in lots of everyday products, and it causes cancer.
But there’s another common building material out there, and it also causes cancer. But until I looked it up for this article, I didn’t know how to say it in Chinese: asbestos, shimian (石棉). I think that’s a sign that asbestos isn’t on as many people’s minds in China.
Really? Asbestos Isn’t a Thing in China?
But is that just my biased experience? I searched for both “asbestos” and “formaldehyde” on Zhihu, a popular question-answer site in China. “Formaldehyde” turned up almost 20,000 references. “Asbestos” turned up 4,000.
Asbestos seems to get only a small fraction of the attention that formaldehyde gets in China. But should it?
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a mineral that makes a great fiber. People use that fiber in lots of building materials, like insulation, paints, electric wiring, wall boards, and floor tiles. Asbestos might be all around us.
Should I Be Concerned About Asbestos?
When any of these materials break apart, the asbestos can become airborne and get into our lungs. Asbestos fibers can lodge in the lining of the throat, lungs, or stomach, causing cancerous mutations.
There’s even a type of cancer called “mesothelioma,” for which asbestos is the only scientifically proven cause.
Effects of asbestos on the human body
Is Asbestos Common in China?
Because of the known hazards of asbestos, more than 50 countries have banned it. Despite that, an estimated 2 million tons of asbestos continue to be used around the world each year. But is it common in China? Maybe not, since I’ve never heard anyone mention it in China.
But the data shows China is a major asbestos consumer. In 2012, China consumed the most asbestos of any nation.
China consumes 26% of the world’s asbestos, with India not far behind.
China has made some moves to get rid of asbestos. When China built venues for the Beijing Olympics, China declared that it was not using asbestos cement, which had been the norm. Current laws in China say that asbestos should not be in car brakes and other products.
However, China still uses asbestos. An industry spokesperson for the China Chrysotile Association said, “our production … can’t keep pace with demand from the construction industry so we have to import from Russia.” That suggest asbestos is still around us in China.
What You Should Know
- Asbestos is the most dangerous once disturbed. When fibers become airborne, we can breathe them in or ingest them.
- Your home and office materials in China may contain asbestos. Use caution with materials likely to contain asbestos, such as wall board, cement, roofing, or insulation. The most dangerous times are during construction and remodeling.
- Inexpensive pollution masks like N95 and N99 masks (see tests) and HEPA purifiers can capture asbestos particles (see the Quora article).
For more information on asbestos visit the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center. Learn more on the World Environment Day website.
Thomas is an Associate Professor of Behavior Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the founder of, a social enterprise to help people in China breathe clean air without shelling out thousands of dollars for expensive purifiers.