Sydney asbestos scare prompts union call for increased border screening

Asia's Tech News Daily

An asbestos contamination scare at a major construction company in Sydney has sparked a union warning that Australian homeowners and builders could be at risk if the lethal material isn’t being stopped at the border.

Building materials supplier USG Boral earlier this month discovered “low levels” of asbestos in products it had imported from China to make plasterboard at its Camellia site in Sydney.

Asbestos and goods containing asbestos are prohibited imports, and the Australian Border Force says it is the responsibility of importers to ensure they do not bring them into the country.

The USG Boral incident has prompted the Electrical Trades Union to call on the ABF to ramp up its screening of building materials for asbestos.

The toxic fibres were once used widely in Australian construction but they have been outlawed in the country since 2003 because they have been linked to serious health consequences.

ETU national assistant secretary Michael Wright wrote to Assistant Minister for Customs Jason Wood on Friday claiming the “problem” was costing the construction industry money and putting people’s lives in danger.

“We ask that there is a commitment from the ABF to act immediately to clean up the industry, by drastically increasing its testing of imported building products,” he wrote.

Sydney asbestos scare prompts union call for increased border screening

Camera IconWorkers worked off a Queen's Wharf site Brisbane last week after an asbestos scare. Liam Kidston. Credit: News Corp Australia

NCA NewsWire contacted Mr Wood for comment and was referred to the ABF.

“The ABF continues to target goods at risk of containing asbestos at the border. We regularly review and refine our targeting methodology for all goods potentially containing asbestos,” a spokesman said.

“The ABF may direct an importer to have their goods sampled and tested for asbestos, where we consider the goods at risk of containing asbestos.”

Exposure to asbestos fibres can cause life-threatening illnesses including mesothelioma, an incurable cancer that killed more than 700 people in Australia in 2019, according to the Institute of Health and Welfare.

Sydney asbestos scare prompts union call for increased border screening

Camera IconFederal MP Jason Wood is the Assistant Minister for Customs. File Credit: News Corp Australia

Mr Wright said the construction industry was dealing with the “long tail” of what he claimed was an earlier failure to properly test building materials for asbestos at the border.

“We’re dealing with long term laxness in investigating this issue. We’d be looking for the assistant minister to move asbestos right up the priority chain of what border force does,” he told NCA NewsWire.

“The risk is enormous. Particularly for a product like (plasterboard).

“Anytime anyone works with it, anytime a homeowner drills into it if they want to put up a picture, they’re disturbing the asbestos. There are no safe exposure limits.”

USG Boral says it discovered traces of asbestos during routine testing on a sample of vermiculite and that it believes the contamination is likely to have occurred at the mining source.

The scare caused workers to walk off a construction site in Brisbane last week, but the company has said its plasterboard has been deemed safe to use after further independent testing.

It says vermiculite samples from its Port Melbourne and Brisbane, facilities were also tested and no traces of asbestos were found there.

The company says it has stopped using Chinese-sourced vermiculite across all its products and will have its existing stock removed safely.

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