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Crackdown on asbestos essentially halts collector car exports to Australia

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Swanston dock in Melbourne. Photo by David Wallace.

Renewed enforcement of Australia’s total ban on asbestos-containing imports has led to enhanced scrutiny of collector cars entering the country and reportedly caused collector car enthusiasts there to stop importing older cars altogether.

Issued last month, the Australian Border Force’s notice No. 2017/21 warns importers that the agency takes a hardline stance on enforcement of the country’s ban on manufacture, use, and importation of asbestos or asbestos-containing materials, enacted December 31, 2003. Specifically, the agency notes that it conducts risk assessment of everything imported into the country, regardless of whether the importer declares to customs that what they’re importing doesn’t contain asbestos, and that importers must know – “back to the point of manufacture” – whether their goods contain asbestos.

“Importers need to obtain sufficient information, prior to shipment, when unsure of any asbestos content, parts or components accompanying the primary item of import that are a risk (such as gaskets), or whether asbestos was present at any point in the supply chain process,” the notice reads. “If the information presented does not provide sufficient assurance, the ABF will require importers to arrange testing and certification in Australia… For testing in Australia, the ABF will only accept certification from a laboratory, that is accredited by NATA to undertake asbestos testing, that confirms asbestos was not detected.”

And that testing certainly comes at a price. According to an account by Australian collector car importer Terry Healy that received widespread attention across Australia – and that may have prompted the ABF to issue its notice – extensive testing on the 1965 Ford Mustang and 1966 Shelby G.T. 350 he had shipped to Australia earlier this year cost roughly $15,000, caused $12,000 in damages due to destructive testing of samples from the two cars, and led to the seizure of a number of parts found to contain asbestos, among them the brake pads, brake shoes, exhaust manifold gaskets, and exhaust pipe gaskets.

“For those thinking of importing cars particularly restored cars let alone highly original cars like my Shelby GT 350 there is much to be fearful of,” Healy wrote. “The asbestos content of these cars is very high and in places most enthusiasts would not guess.”

Similarly, according to an account that Michael Sheehan related last month, a DKW importer whose car’s brakes, gaskets, and undercoating tested positive for asbestos faced storage costs, inspection fees, and replacement parts costs that nearly totaled the AUS $7,000 purchase cost of the car.

“The extra red tape, inspection costs and uncertainty have slowed imports to a crawl,” Sheehan wrote. According to Sheehan, the Australian Imported Motor Vehicle Industry Association, largely concerned with getting the Australian government to liberalize the country’s import laws for new cars, has lobbied the ABF for a standardized asbestos inspection regime for imported collector cars that would cut down on the costs and uncertainty.

The renewed scrutiny of imported goods that may contain asbestos – the ABF specifically cites automotive parts in its list of such goods – likely comes on the heels of a report published in The Australian in August of last year and of Australian senate hearings in January of this year that detailed how materials containing asbestos had slipped past ABF inspectors. Specifically, the report cited in The Australian noted the presence of asbestos in “motor vehicle gaskets and spare parts.”

In June, the ABF stated that its “activities are not designed to cause inconvenience to importers, but are part of the Australian Government’s arrangements to protect the public from the significant dangers of asbestos.” Along with that statement, ABF officials provided figures showing that its own asbestos enforcement actions had dramatically increased – from 10 tests in 2013-2014 to 742 tests in 2016-2017 and from zero infringement notices in 2013-2014 to 13 in 2016-2017.

Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral,  at one point was highly prized for its fire resistance but is also known to cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. According to the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, asbestos was commonly found in clutches, brakes, transmissions, and gaskets up until the 1970s.

Fines for individuals who import asbestos can run up to AUS $180,000. Importers can obtain exceptions to the ban on asbestos-containing goods, though only if the goods are naturally-occuring materials with trace amounts of asbestos or for a narrow set of circumstances, mostly involving research and analysis.