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More than 50 building sites across the nation are suspected of illegal asbestos contamination from China, in a problem that is described as the “tip of the iceberg”.

The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency is aware of 64 sites where asbestos-tainted concrete fibre sheeting has been used in construction. State workplace safety authorities are monitoring 17 sites in New South Wales, 13 in Queensland, 11 in South Australia and eight in Victoria. This issue is an emerging problem and it seems to be growing exponentially, as more and more products are brought into Australia, due to the wind-down of manufacturing in Australia.

Importing asbestos into Australia has been banned since 2003.  But the deadly substance is slipping into the country illegally from places like China, in products often certified as “asbestos free”. Popular building product, concrete fibre sheeting, is one area of concern and recent tests have confirmed that the material contained white asbestos.

A major concern is workers being unwittingly exposed to the new wave of asbestos as young tradespeople haven’t been trained to deal with these products, and they think they’re asbestos free.  It’s a real risk to these workers, to their clients and to members of the public who might be in the vicinity where there’s cutting, drilling or manipulation of asbestos cement products.

Building products are not the only imports tainted with asbestos – children’s crayons and car parts have also come under Australian Border Force (ABF) scrutiny.  The ABF said all cargo identified as “high risk” is physically examined, and there is currently a watch-list of more than 40 products, importers and manufacturers.  Unions have said the problem could worsen as a result of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA).

Fines of up to $170,000 can be applied for illegal imports.  A Senate inquiry into non-conforming building products resumes on Tuesday 16th February 2016.