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 2017–18 reporting year saw more detections 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 August 2017, the HWSA Working Group issued a consumer and retailer alert regarding the sale of Yamaha childrens and juveniles quad bikes in Australia that were suspected to contain asbestos in the front and rear brake shoes and other spare parts. This followed on from reports of illegal importation of asbestos parts found in Polaris youth quad bikes resulting in a nationwide recall of several models in the 2016–17 year.

The HWSA Working Group also issued a safety alert relating to acetylene gas cylinders containing asbestos materials that have been imported into Australia. The manufacturer of the cylinders described the internal asbestos-containing materials as calcium silicate and the Australian importing company was advised the cylinders were asbestos-free. These types of cylinders are used widely throughout Australia in the manufacturing, electrical and plumbing trades for welding, plastics and acrylic acid derivatives and portable lighting.

The agency has been working with stakeholders, notably the Department of Home Affairs, Australian Border Force, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission 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 relevant Minister as per the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956, who is responsible for granting permission to parties that want to import asbestos-containing samples or goods into Australia for the purposes of research, analysis or display.

Asbestos in the community – natural disasters and infrastructure

The Australian community experienced a number of natural disasters in the 2017–18 year, one particular event in south coast NSW showing that continual improvements to disaster action plans and strategies are being made in order to protect the community from exposure to asbestos fibres when managing damaged property.

In March 2018, a severe bushfire caused widespread damage and destruction in the small coastal town on Tathra, NSW with 65 homes, 70 caravans and 1,250 hectares of bushland surrounding the town destroyed. Information from the Bega Valley Shire Council estimated about 6,000 tonnes of asbestos waste would be removed from the town.

To prevent exposure to asbestos, NSW emergency services agencies cordoned off the entire area damaged by fire, preventing residents from returning to their properties for many days and the NSW Government announced a $10 million clean-up assistance package to help dispose of the asbestos- containing waste materials appropriately.

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.

The ongoing activities of a serial illegal asbestos dumping offender in NSW were again highlighted in the media during the 2017–18 year, with this person finally being arrested and charged for serial offences and non-payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines over many years. Also in NSW, two men were arrested following an incident where eight tonnes of asbestos-filled waste was discovered dumped in a suburban Sydney street.

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.

International asbestos issues – Canada and Brazil

During the 2017–18 year, the agency welcomed the announcement from the Canadian federal government on the announcement of a national ban on asbestos and the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court decision banning the use of asbestos in Brazil, finding there are no safe levels for the use of asbestos.

Until 2011, Canada was one of the biggest miners and exporters of raw asbestos but changed its position on the risks posed by exposure to asbestos in a matter of years to introducing a national ban on asbestos. The Prohibitions of Asbestos and Asbestos Products Regulations were gazetted on 6 January 2018 prohibiting the importation, sale and use as well as the manufacturing of goods containing asbestos; with some exclusions.

Brazil is one of the top five asbestos consuming countries in the world, and it will now join more than 70 other countries, including Australia, to ban use of the deadly substance. Russia, China and Kazakhstan are now the only commercial producers of asbestos in the world with consumption continuing to rise in Asia, particularly South-east Asia.

Australia plays an international leadership role in curtailing the deadly asbestos trade, by leading the push to stand up to the global asbestos industry, helping Southeast Asian countries confront the problem and supporting the global campaign to list chrysotile asbestos on Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention for the trade of hazardous chemicals.