Asbestos found in imported goods including toys and building materials

Unions and anti-asbestos campaigners are demanding more testing at Australia's border after revelations the deadly mineral is still slipping into the country despite a strict ban. 

Key points:Asbestos has been banned in Australia since 2003 but is legal in a number of other countriesIn March, Border Force tested four shipments and all four were found to contain asbestosIn September, asbestos was found in building materials imported from China

Since the start of last year, foreign asbestos has been found in imported building materials, remote control cars, engine gaskets, billiard table irons and Sydney's new ferries.

The manufacture, transport and importation of asbestos has been banned in Australia since 2003. Asbestosis sufferer and president of the Asbestos Victims Association, Peter Baxter, said he feared a new generation of exposure and disease.

"Once you scrape it or drill it or break it and all that, you're releasing the fibres," he told 7.30.

A remote controlled car
One of the imported remote controlled cars found to contain asbestos.(Supplied: Australian Border Force)

"The children's stuff, the toys, now that's wrong, that's really wrong because they're hammering the toys a bit, they're battering them, pulling them apart … so they're at risk and I don't like that."

Asbestos auditor Andrew Mantle said asbestos was readily available and legal in Asia, and its fire resistant properties meant it was used in a variety of products, particularly by manufacturing giant China.

"One of the issues is that asbestos is incredibly cheap," he said.

"For someone that's looking for a price break and bringing in 10 container loads of [plasterboard] sheeting because they can buy cheaper from China, you're playing Russian roulette."

Asbestos found in building material

A sign on a building says 'USG Boral'.
USG Boral found asbestos in raw vermiculite it imported from China.(ABC News: Jerry Rickard)

The latest foreign asbestos discovery came in September when building material supplies company USG Boral found raw vermiculite it imported from China to make plasterboard was tainted with asbestos.

The scare prompted testing across the nation where the plasterboard had been used, including at the Queen's Wharf construction site in Brisbane. The site was found free of asbestos.

ACTU president Michele O'Neil said the fact asbestos was still entering the country almost 20 years after the ban was unacceptable.

"We know that there are products that are coming in every day undetected and that is putting everyone at risk. So we're very concerned about the long-term health impacts of this." she told 7.30.

"There is absolutely no safe level of asbestos exposure. Literally, one fibre can eventually lead to death. This is how dangerous this product is."

Do you know more about this story? Contact 7.30 at [email protected]

Michele O'Neil stands in the ACTU Melbourne office.
Michele O'Neil wants to see a global ban on asbestos.(ABC News: Scott Jewell)

USG Boral declined 7.30's request for interview but in a statement said low levels of asbestos were found at each of its manufacturing sites in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. It said the product had been removed and the sites deep cleaned.

"We have stopped using this vermiculite sourced from China," the statement said.

"USG Boral wants all stakeholders to have confidence in our quality systems and response to any identified issues.

"At USG Boral, the safety of our workers and customers is our number one priority in everything we do."

Testing every container 'not practical'

A row of stacked shipping containers by the side of a road.
There are calls for more imports to be tested for asbestos.(ABC News: Curtis Rodda)

In 2016, the ABC ran a series of reports revealing asbestos contaminated building products from China had been used in the construction of portable structures, on a Brisbane high rise building and in the new children's hospital in Perth.

Back then, Australian Border Force pledged a crackdown.

Despite calls for more testing, Border Force figures show this year as few as four consignments were tested in March. All were tainted with asbestos. In June, seven were tested. The majority came back positive.

Month

Number of asbestos tests at the border

Number of detections

June 2021

7

5

May 2021

13

4

April 2021

16

2

March 2021

4

4

February 2021

9

3

January 2021

16

0

Source: Australian Border Force. Multiple detections within one consignment or shipment is counted as a single detection within the statistics

Border Force declined 7.30's interview request but said it continued to target goods at risk of containing asbestos and regularly reviews and refines its targeting methodology.

Ms O'Neil believed little progress had been made to stop asbestos since the issue was last in the headlines in 2016 and was scrutinised by a Senate inquiry.

"The government has ignored recommendations that came from a Senate inquiry into the importation of asbestos-related products back in 2018. It made 26 recommendations but only six have ever been implemented," she said.

"We need a dedicated unit within Australian Border Force to look for asbestos-related products, to take serious action to stop their importation.

"We don't have an effective system that means there is enough testing, or enough prosecution of those companies that are continuing to import products that put at risk workers who work with the products, but also everyone in the community."

Mr Mantle believed it wasn't possible to detect all asbestos coming into the country. 

"I can't remember the number of containers that come into a port like Melbourne or Sydney, but it's many, many thousands a day. So to assume that the Border Force has the facilities and the staff available to test every container that comes in and see what's in it, it's not practical," he said.

'Australian government needs to talk to Chinese government'

A man standing in front of shipping containers
Colin Brame says that in China, a product containing five per cent asbestos is considered asbestos-free.(ABC News: Curtis Rodda)

Mr Mantle, who is based in Singapore, is paid by companies to test goods for asbestos before they're imported into Australia. He had many examples of equipment testing positive, despite supplier assurances it was asbestos free. 

"There was some equipment that was definitely set aside for Australia, had the big Australian flag on it, looked all lovely when we were there, but right next to it was all this other equipment … they both came back as containing asbestos," he said.

"So you know, they're saying, 'Oh, no, no, that's for the domestic market. This is for Australia.' But they both clearly had asbestos issues in it.

"The cheaper you buy a product, generally, the cheaper the components and the less stringent they are about maintaining those standards."

Australian Border Force said if it doubted the authenticity of import documents it would make enquiries to establish their validity. But customs broker Colin Brame said Australia had little power to enforce compliance with overseas manufacturers.

"The trading level that China has around the world is substantial," he said.

"We are a very small part of their overall trade. So for them, why would they want to change their entire supply chain just to meet our restrictions?

"They're probably not going to take much notice about zero tolerance.

"The fact that the US doesn't have a zero tolerance approach to asbestos certainly complicates the business of trade on a worldwide level."

Mr Brame said in China, a product containing 5 per cent asbestos was considered asbestos-free. He said the federal government needed to intervene.

"It's a government to government process. The Australian government needs to talk with the Chinese government, it has to start at the top level," he told 7.30.

Ms O'Neil said a multi-pronged strategy was needed.

"One of the answers to this is that we have better and more local manufacturing available of the products that we need," she said.

"We also need to be part of a global ban that stops the production and the use of asbestos around the world, she told 7.30.

The Assistant Minister for Customs, Jason Wood, declined to be interviewed.

Watch this story on 7.30 on ABC TV and iview.

Posted 9 Nov 20219 Nov 2021Tue 9 Nov 2021 at 6:58am, updated 9 Nov 20219 Nov 2021Tue 9 Nov 2021 at 5:31pmShareCopy linkFacebookTwitterArticle share optionsShare this onFacebookTwitterLinkedInSend this byEmailMessengerCopy linkWhatsApp

上海419论坛

Related Posts