Asbestos. Even hearing this word sends a chill down the spine of many people across the country. Due to the deadly consequences of interacting with this carcinogenic natural material, this reaction is understandable, and processes must be in place to ensure this hazard is managed.
However, this is the trick with asbestos as a concept in Australia – it has been banned since December 31, 2003. In fact, according to Asbestos Wise, it hasn't featured in domestic building materials for close to 40 years. This means that the import, manufacture, supply, sale and use or reuse of asbestos and asbestos-containing products is no longer permitted, except under very limited circumstances.
So, why is this hazard still hitting the headlines in Australia and where should both the general public and building professionals be on the lookout for asbestos?
Flaws in international asbestos laws
Despite asbestos being banned in Australia, there are many countries across the world that continue to use the material as part of everyday products.
According to Latest Global Asbestos Data by Laurie Kazan-Allen and David Allen, white asbestos is still mined in parts of China, Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan and, up until 2012, in Canada. These countries also make up the largest exporters of asbestos and present the most difficult challenges for Australian businesses and consumers importing foreign products.
While asbestos is supposed to be marked on these items, this isn't always the case as overseas businesses look to bypass border and customs inspections. As such, asbestos still finds its way into Australia – hidden under different names or not listed at all. In recent times, we have seen many newspaper articles and reports highlighting asbestos-containing materials (ACM) found in society – unwittingly potentially putting the lives of thousands at risk.
Building and construction Industry
A particularly concerning example of imported goods posing an asbestos risk was uncovered in August 2015. WorkCover NSW issued a prohibition notice to a Sydney residential building site after authorities found traces of asbestos in fibrous building panels imported from China.
The Australian builders thought the panels were asbestos-free, but after testing from the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited laboratory, chrysotile asbestos was discovered. However, it was too late as the panels had been cut, forcing the builder to close the site down and engage a licensed asbestos removalist to address the issue.
According to a February 15, 2016 ABC article, this isn't the only example in recent years. The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) believes that over 50 building sites have purchased asbestos-tainted concrete fibre sheeting from China between 2013 and 2015.
ASEA CEO Peter Tighe explained that this is a problem that continues to spiral out of control.
"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," he told the ABC.
"What we've really got now is really an indication, which could be the tip of the iceberg."
However, this isn't the only sector facing the wrath of imported goods containing asbestos.
Education/home education/day care industry
For those interacting with children at home, day care or school, protecting their health is often considered the top priority, but asbestos is again rearing its ugly head.
In September 2015, The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) announced that it had found ACM in a number of imported crayon products. While the asbestos posed a limited threat to humans as it was bound in the crayon wax, the fact that a product can enter the country without detection is concerning.
Here are the crayon products listed by the ACCC:
- Dora the Explorer Personalised 32 pack crayons.
- Dora the Explorer Jumbo crayons.
- Arti Crafti 16 piece crayons.
- Peppa Pig 8 wax crayons.
- Disney 'Frozen' Jumbo Crayons.
- Disney 'Mickey Mouse and Friends' Crayons.
Unless parents and educational professionals identify these concerns, the risk of exposure for children only increases. As such, importers need to take a stronger stance on the issue.
With the Australian transport manufacturing decline in recent years, this has invited greater amounts of products imported from overseas – allowing asbestos materials to filter into the country.
In fact, two businesses imported brake shoes thought to be asbestos-free between 2013 and 2015. Later tested by NATA accredited laboratories, the Maxus Brake shoe trucks and Toyota HiLux and Hiace (non genuine parts) actually contained ACM. These products were later recalled through the government agency.
It is important to note that there have been countless imported asbestos materials found since 2004. These include:
- Flange gaskets brake-to-monkey bikes.
- Diesel train engines.
- Entire production plants.
- Drilling lubricant material nut plug.
- Underbody protectant and sound deadeners.
- Various Chinese imported cars.
With asbestos still posing a serious risk in a number of industries and sectors, all importers and consumers need to understand how to avoid this hazard. As Australia's product imports continue to climb, this is a problem that could get worse before it gets better.
What action is required by importers?
For importers, the message from the ASEA is clear; be aware that different countries have various definitions and standards around asbestos. As the importer, they have a responsibility to ensure that they are not bring dangerous materials into the country, and this can be achieved in a number of ways.
Request certification – The term 'asbestos-free' can mean that a product contains a small amount of the deadly fibres in another country. As such, request insight from the manufacturer prior to shipment that the goods are actually asbestos-free.
Obtain evidence – To have peace of mind that a product is asbestos-free, it is critical to obtain evidence from the overseas supplier. This could come in the form of product testing – paid by the importer.
Complete sample – If the importer is concerned that the supplier isn't up front about the testing process, it might be wise to consider using a competent person to sample the goods/materials before purchase/shipping. According to the ASEA, "it is recommended that a NATA-accredited laboratory, accredited for the relevant test method (AS 4964 method for the qualitative identification of asbestos in bulk samples), or internationally equivalent laboratories be used."
What action is required by employers and workers?
If workers are concerned about imported goods, such as building materials potentially containing asbestos, it is important that the problem is taken seriously. Employers should then make arrangements to have the suspected materials tested.
At Greencap, we believe that is far better to have prevented an exposure to asbestos than to be managing an incident (potential exposure) involving unwittingly disturbed ACM. Additionally, all companies that import into the country should have a good understanding of the Australian government's The Heads of Workplace Safety Authorities – Rapid Response Protocol, Managing importation of asbestos into Australia.
Employers should have a robust procurement plan incorporated into their asbestos management plan. Greencap will provide relevant information and source databases that may assist your organisation ensure that asbestos does not enter your supply chain.
Remember any product found with any level of asbestos is actually prohibited from being imported and used in Australia. Some other countries still use asbestos in manufactured products and may classify goods as "Asbestos Free" because they only contain low levels of asbestos content. Likewise the asbestos free certification provided by overseas manufacturers can also be simply incorrect or not report to lower concentrations (typically 0.1 per cent – 0.25 per cent).
How can Greencap assist around imported goods?
Greencap has been practising in the area of asbestos for over 30 years and are seen to be experts in matters relating to asbestos.
Our services include: NATA -accredited laboratories for asbestos identification and fibre counting, asbestos in soils, asbestos audits, asbestos risk assessments, clearance inspections and reporting, preparation of asbestos removal scopes of works and project management services, several VET accredited asbestos training for asbestos removal, awareness, and have competent and Licenced Class A asbestos assessors.
For more information about how asbestos could impact your workplace or facility, get in contact with our expert team today.