More Headaches for 2020 Tokyo Organizers: Asbestos at Olympic Water Polo Venue

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The roof area of the Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center is where asbestos has been found. Photo Courtesy: Tokyo Sports Benefit Corporation

After multiple reports cited that the Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center, venue for men’s and women’s water polo at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, contains asbestos, organizers are vowing to take “emergency countermeasures.”

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The Asahi Shimbun, The Japan Times and Reuters, among others, have cited asbestos-containing insulation in at least two locations, including sealed in the building’s roof. But, due to difficulties of extraction, as well as the amount involved, it was decided to leave well enough alone when the arena was renovated in 2017 .

Now, this unresolved health situation is causing headaches for the organizers of the Tokyo Games.

Asbestos: more common than you might expect

A fire-proofing material used extensively in construction during the last century, asbestos was often sprayed on steel support structures. This is the situation at Tatsumi. Opened in 1993, the asbestos was applied to the insides of the distinctive structure anchoring the building’s roof.

The challenge facing organizers of the Tokyo Games is that the Japanese government — which now bans the use of asbestos in construction — did not specify its removal during the 2017 renovation. According to The Asahi Shimbun the problem was determined “not to be large in scale, in a stable condition and not accessible.”

Those decisions from three years ago are plaguing an organizing committee that is contending with other venue headaches.

Temperature concerns caused the relocation of the marathon — a signature Olympic event — to the far northern city of Sapporo. There are also questions of how elevated levels of bacteria in Tokyo Bay, where open water swimming is scheduled to be held, might impact athletes’ health.

Emergency Countermeasures?

Tokyo 2020 organizers are now reportedly scrambling to address perceptions that somehow there is risk — one being amplified by organizations like Asbestos.com, a website maintained by The Mesothelioma Center, an advocacy organization.

Last week, organizers vowed to take “emergency countermeasures” to ensure the venue is safe. Swimming World has requested clarification what these measures might entail, including the possibility of a different venue being used.

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Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center. Photo Courtesy: Katie Ledecky

The risk is considerable. Despite reportedly being isolated to two low-traffic areas in the arena, there is the possibility that asbestos fibers could find a way into the building’s air conditioning and ventilation system. This would mean that this toxic substance could circulate throughout the approximately 4,000-seat venue.

In response to questions from Asbestos.com, Greg Mescall, USA Water Polo Director of Communications, responded to concerns that the American men’s and women’s water polo teams, among others, will be impacted.

“We are working closely with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee in conjunction with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, and are confident they are taking the necessary precautions to ensure the health and safety of all athletes during the games, irrespective of venue or site,” Mescall said.

Until a solution is presented, the problem will float around the Internet; not unlike the threat from the substance in question.

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