Asbestos in the news

Asbestos continues to be an emotive issue that will generate attention in the community and in the media. The prevalence of asbestos-containing materials in the domestic built environment will continue to cause significant problems in the Australian community while it remains in place.

Importation of asbestos-containing materials into Australia

The 2016–17 reporting year saw more detection of asbestos-containing materials at the Australian customs border and in the community resulting in action by the Heads of Workplace Safety Authorities (HWSA) Imported Materials with Asbestos Working Group and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

In June 2017, the HWSA Working Group issued a consumer and retailer alert regarding the sale of children’s crayons sold within Australia that were found to contain trace amounts of asbestos. Other examples of illegal importation were asbestos brake shoes detected in Vespa motor scooters and electrical scooters imported into Australia and a range of asbestos parts found in Polaris youth quad bikes resulting in a nationwide recall of several models.

In August 2016, friable asbestos was detected in new plant equipment imported from China to be installed at the Port Pirie smelter redevelopment in South Australia. It was revealed in media reports at the time SafeWork South Australia were notified of the breach of work health and safety laws and customs regulations making importation of asbestos unlawful.

The agency has been working with stakeholders, notably the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and customs brokers, to promote sample testing prior to the full importation of materials to ensure these events are prevented. The agency provides advice to the Minister for Employment, who is responsible for granting permission to parties that want to import asbestos-containing samples or goods into Australia.

Senate Inquiry into non-conforming building products

The Senate Economics References Committee Inquiry into Non-Conforming Building Products also generated attention in the media with a number of public hearings across Australia to hear evidence on the impact of non-conforming building products in the building industry and the danger of asbestos-containing materials being illegally imported into Australia.

Following the federal election in August 2016, the Senate Inquiry was reconstituted and adopted extended terms of reference in October 2016 specifically relating to the illegal importation of products containing asbestos. This was a result of the high-profile media stories regarding imported asbestos being detected on the Qld Government building in Brisbane, the Perth Children’s Hospital redevelopment and a number of other instances.

The agency’s submission to the Inquiry argues that it is the duty and responsibility for all decision-makers along the supply chain to ensure that Australian laws and regulations are enforced at all stages, not just when they arrive in Australia. (See diagram page 55.)

The Senate Committee is due to publish their final report during the 2017–18 reporting year and the agency will provide whatever advice and assistance to all levels of government and corporate Australia to ensure the importation of asbestos materials no longer occurs.

Asbestos in the community – natural disasters and infrastructure

The Australian community experienced a number of natural disasters in the 2016–17 year, one particular event in southern Sydney showing that disaster action plans and strategies are changing for the better when it comes to managing damaged property which contains asbestos.

In March 2017, Tropical Cyclone Debbie hit the north coast of Qld causing significant damage to property and its aftermath bring torrential rain and flooding to the east coast of Qld and NSW. A significant number of properties in coastal towns along the east coast of Australia were built using asbestos-cement ‘fibro’ sheeting so every natural disaster that occurs brings a new set of challenges in preventing exposure to that damaged asbestos.

Illegal dumping of asbestos material in the community

The media reporting of instances of illegal asbestos materials dumping in the community continued to be of concern to the agency, with a number of high-profile dumping events occurring across the country.

During the 2016–17 reporting year, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption conducted an investigation into illegal asbestos waste dumping involving alleged bribery of a NSW Government employee responsible for investigating these illegal dumping events. Allegations in this case included the Western Sydney Regional Illegal Dumping Squad officer soliciting bribes from people in return for not investigating their illegal asbestos dumping activities.

The ongoing activities of a serial illegal asbestos dumping offender in NSW were highlighted in the media during the reporting year, with reports that he has moved to Vic and operating a similar business in Melbourne. This serial offender has been found guilty in the NSW Land and Environment Court for illegally dumping asbestos more than a dozen times and has been ordered to clean up a number of sites and pay up to $500,000 in fines.

The agency will continue to monitor illegal dumping events to assist in the development of policy, with the assistance of the Asbestos Waste Working Group, regarding effective removal and disposal of asbestos-containing materials.

Asbestos in remote Indigenous communities

The agency published a report in May 2017 which received media attention, finding there are unique challenges with asbestos in remote Australian communities and that the cost of removing asbestos in remote areas can be up to three times higher than for other parts of the country.

Indigenous corporations and land councils have inherited ageing infrastructure that was full of asbestos structures such as housing, churches and public buildings and they require targeted resources to deal with this legacy; in most cases the communities have limited resources and many other priorities to address.

The findings of this study have given remote communities and governments practical options to consider which can overcome the enormous obstacles to dealing with asbestos. The study has examined what works, and sets out effective ways to tackle this problem.