While the sale, use and importation of asbestos was banned in Australia in 2003, recent reports have revealed that asbestos contaminated products are still making their way into the Australian building products market.

Banned asbestos still coming into Australia

Last month, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection released an independent review by Swedish firm KGH Border Services which reveals the Australian Border Force is only testing a small fraction (less than five per cent) of shipments each year and that companies importing goods riddled with asbestos are not being fully investigated by the ABF due to time and resources constraints and the uncertainty of prosecution.

The release of the review comes amid an outcry led by unions and business groups over the rising incidence of Chinese-made building materials that claim to be asbestos free but in fact contain asbestos fibres slipping through border controls. The ABF last month halted 21 containers sourced from overseas companies after building materials at the Perth Children’s Hospital and an office building in Brisbane were found to contain white asbestos (chyrsotile) as well products such as children’s crayons, automobile gaskets and spare parts.

Despite the occurrence of contaminated exports, the report reveals that authorities have only prosecuted three companies for importing asbestos since 2008 and that the maximum fine for illegally importing asbestos, $180,000 has never been imposed in Australia. The report noted that it was often difficult for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to prosecute against a “mistake of fact” defence, in which an importer argues it took all reasonable steps to prevent the infringement. This means that an overseas laboratory testing certificate which shows goods are asbestos free could be enough evidence for a court to find the importer had done its best to meet standards even where the testing did not strictly comply with Australian standards. There are now calls on the federal government to more forcefully pursue the offence and to work with countries such as China to educate suppliers about Australian laws.

As asbestos continues to be used widely around the world, particularly in developing nations it is imperative that time and resource restraints do not prevent thorough investigations and testing of imported building materials in Australia. Such a failure could see a rise in the number of Australians affected by asbestos related disease in the years to come and these people may have no right to claim compensation from a Chinese manufacturer.