Photo/IllutrationRepair work has been completed at the Tatsumi Water Polo Center in Tokyo's Koto Ward. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

After treading water for two years, the Tokyo metropolitan government is finally dealing with asbestos at a venue that will be used in next year's Tokyo Olympics.

The Tatsumi Water Polo Center in the capital's Koto Ward was found to have asbestos with the highest danger of becoming airborne. Airborne asbestos is considered a major health threat as it can cause lung cancer and other major diseases.

The center is owned by the Tokyo metropolitan government, which learned in 2017 that asbestos had been used at the site. However, nothing was done to remove or contain the hazardous material on the grounds that no law had been violated and there was a low degree of danger.

Tokyo officials still insisted the danger level was low when The Asahi Shimbun informed the Tokyo metropolitan government on Dec. 6 about the use of asbestos at the venue.

But on Dec. 25, officials said they had decided to deal with the environmental problem given that spectators from around the world would enter the venue to take in the competition.

The Tatsumi Water Polo Center, which opened in 1993, has been used for international and Japanese national swimming competitions.

The venue will be used mainly for water polo at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. To prepare the site, the Tokyo metropolitan government from October 2018 began expanding the wheelchair-accessible seating area and making other improvements, such as installing handrails along stairways.

Before such work began, an asbestos inspection was conducted in 2017. That led to the finding that a material that contained asbestos had been sprayed onto fireproof covering material applied to some parts of two column bases holding up the main roof.

Under the Building Standards Law, asbestos has to be either removed or contained whenever a major repair or improvement is made to a building.

But the Tokyo metropolitan government did nothing about the asbestos because officials determined that the work at the Tatsumi center did not constitute a "major" improvement.

Metropolitan government standards also state that the status quo can be maintained in instances when the surface of the asbestos has been stabilized and it is located in an area where pedestrian traffic is low.

Government officials determined that the public would likely not come in contact with the asbestos because it was located in such an isolated area. However, the area was not sealed off from its surroundings and the structure of the building allowed for air within the section in question to circulate over the spectator seats.

In 2016, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications issued a notice to prefectural governments asking them to compile information regarding asbestos in public facilities. But because of the various measures that have been taken until now, the ministry found that as of October 2016 there were only 0.7 percent of facilities for which nothing was done about asbestos that had been sprayed onto some part of the structure.

While the central government has not made obligatory measures to deal with asbestos, a number of local governments, such as Kawasaki city, have established rules to immediately remove or contain asbestos that is most susceptible to becoming airborne in public facilities.

Takehiko Murayama, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology who is knowledgeable about risk management, said it was problematic not to do anything about the Tatsumi center since the asbestos could become airborne and it was a facility where the public could easily enter.