The government is being urged to do more to banish asbestos in buildings. Contaminated illegal imports are sneaking through customs, threatening the health of Australians.
A Senate Committee wants the federal government to enforce bans on asbestos in buildings, by cracking down on illegal importers.
It released an interim report last November with 26 recommendations that resulted from the inquiry into non-conforming building products.
“The importation of banned materials, such as asbestos, raises very serious concerns about the capacity of Australian authorities to deal with this issue, particularly in light of our open and dynamic trade environment.”
The report calls for:
- A new mandatory testing regime
- Tighter rules for importers
- Compulsory product recalls by the ACCC when asbestos is found, unless this causes significant risks (in which case the ACCC must publish the reasons behind no recall).
“The committee believes that increasing the number of successful prosecutions and reviewing the quantum of penalties would have a significant deterrent effect on the illegal importation of asbestos.”
The committee also wants other states and territories to follow Queensland’s lead, by imposing a chain of responsibility around non-conforming products.
Wait a minute, hasn’t Australia already banned asbestos in buildings and other products?
Correct, but this hasn’t eradicated the issue.
Although Australia banned the use of asbestos-containing material in 2003, it’s still widespread.
In Queensland, asbestos can be found in buildings and structures that were built or renovated before 1990.
However this interim report focuses on asbestos contamination linked to imports from other nations. It claims that Australia isn’t doing enough to penalise those who break the law.
In the interest of balance, it’s worth noting that Coalition Senators aren’t too concerned about asbestos in buildings. Their dissenting report states there hasn’t been an increase in asbestos detection rates, even though Border Force are doing more to handle this issue.
If you’re an importer and your product has asbestos in it, unless you’ve done everything possible to check and double check, you should face a potential jail term.
Former Senator Nick Xenophon
There’s evidence the deadly compound is sneaking into Australian buildings through illegal Chinese imports labelled as being “asbestos free”.
State authorities found more than 50 sites with asbestos in buildings across the nation, according to a 2016 news report. This was in the form of tainted concrete fibre sheeting.
At the time, 13 sites in Queensland were being monitored, in addition to other parts of Australia.
Experts say the asbestos ban isn’t doing enough to prevent illegal imports. They’re worried about tradespeople, who aren’t trained to handle contaminated products labelled as asbestos-free.
“It’s an emerging problem and it seems to be growing exponentially, as more and more products are brought into Australia, because of the wind-down of manufacturing in this country,” Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency CEO Peter Tighe told the ABC.
“What we’ve really got now is really an indication which could be the tip of the iceberg.” he said.
China isn’t the only nation that still uses asbestos. Russia, India, Canada and the United States also haven’t banned the substance.
So far, asbestos has been banned by 55 countries, including Australia.
What’s so dangerous about illegal imports and asbestos in buildings?
Exposure to asbestos can have deadly consequences, causing mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and other fatal diseases. Globally, around 125 million people have been exposed to the compound at work, through inhaling fibres or handling contaminated materials.
If you’re concerned about the presence of asbestos in buildings you’re working on, Asbestos Awareness has more information.
Electricians should also read this guide about working with contaminated switchboard panels.