Asbestos in building products: Australia investigates illegal imports

Asbestos warning sign on building

July 31, 2017

By: Sam Crothers

A Senate Inquiry into non-conforming building products – including materials containing asbestos – will deliver its final report on October 31st, 2017.

The Inquiry, which began in June 2015, is investigating the impact of non-conforming building products on health and safety as well as building quality and cost.

Nearly 100 submissions for the Inquiry have been received, including detailed information from organizations like the Green Building Council of Australia, the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, and the Housing Industry Association.

Asbestos is one of the main focus areas of the investigation.

Australia banned the manufacture and use of products containing asbestos in December 2003. Despite the ban, products with asbestos are still being imported.

According to the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, the penalty for importing goods containing asbestos is up to AU$170,000 for individuals and AU$850,000 for companies, or 3 times the value of the imported goods – whichever is greater.

But these penalties aren’t deterring everyone. In 2015, the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency said:

there have been a significant number of incidents involving the importation of asbestos-containing goods or materials into Australia, in breach of the Regulations”, and

it is likely that there have been further instances where building and construction equipment and materials containing asbestos have made their way into Australia’s building and construction industry without any detection by any regulator”.

International Bans

According to the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), laws and regulations banning the use of asbestos are in force in 61 countries, including Australia, France, Germany, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The first country to ban asbestos was Iceland – in 1983.

There are also a number of countries where the manufacture and use of asbestos is legal. In places like China, India, Brazil and Indonesia it’s openly used for building materials and friction products in the automotive industry.

Natural-born Killer

Asbestos is a natural mineral fiber, extracted by mining. It’s widely used in manufacturing because it’s heat resistant and strong.

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (part of the World Health Organisation), asbestos is a ‘known carcinogen’ – a proven cause of cancer. It causes Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs and lower digestive tract.

Asbestos can also cause ‘Asbestosis’, a serious scarring of the lungs causing shortness of breath.

Asbestos-related diseases are caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Most cases are related to long term exposure, but short-term exposure can also cause disease.

On a global basis, occupational contact is the most common form of exposure to asbestos. According to the World Health Organisation, “about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace”, and about 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related disease.

Other groups affected by asbestos include people who live and work near asbestos operations, and family members of asbestos workers.

Home renovation also plays a part in the disease toll. The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency in Australia has estimated that approximately 42% of future mesothelioma cases will come from non-occupational sources, including DIY activity.

For more information about asbestos, including services for people affected by asbestos-related disease, click on the links below.

(Image credit: Ktorbeck, via Wikipedia Commons)