Asbestos warning

There might be more to your classic car than meets the eye.

Imagine this: you’ve bought your dream car - a classic 1960’s Mustang - organised and paid for the import approvals and freight from the US. In a flash, the dream becomes a nightmare when the vehicle is impounded by Australian authorities to be tested for asbestos, while you’re paying the rapidly increasing bill.
Importing a collector car is more difficult and expensive now that the Australian Border Force is actively enforcing a “zero tolerance” to asbestos.  

Asbestos was once a common component of automotive parts such as brake and clutch linings, gaskets and heat insulation. But, while there’s no doubt that it was an excellent product for these uses, it’s also a killer. Exposure to asbestos fibres is a known cause of several fatal diseases.  

Australia banned the importation and use of asbestos in 2004, however it has since been found in products as diverse as children’s crayons and semi-trailer brakes, and there are currently more than 20 asbestos related product recalls on the books. 

The collector-car community and freight-forwarding industry were angered that there was no warning a stringent new inspection process would be applied to older car imports from 5 March, 2017.
While this potentially affects all future imports of collector cars, it was the cars that were in transit at the time that became caught up in the new process. Owners didn’t have the opportunity to remove any asbestos and get the vehicles certified as asbestos-free before shipping. Once the vehicle was landed in Australia, their only options were to pay the costs of testing (and asbestos removal where necessary), re-export the vehicle or surrender it for destruction.

For some, the costs exceeded the value of the vehicle - more than $15,000 in one case - and, faced with mounting bills, some owners cut their losses and simply walked away. For others, the sampling/testing process resulted in a large bill and damage to previously intact, original vehicles.
The new arrangements have also impacted the temporary import and export of vehicles for special events such as international rallies, with many owners withdrawing due to concerns that their vehicle may not be allowed to enter, or re-enter, Australia without expensive testing and remediation.

Some enthusiasts argue that the risk posed by asbestos in older cars is negligible and easily mitigated with proper handling techniques and education, so a total asbestos ban for these vehicles isn’t warranted. They feel their view has been given some weight since a couple of Chinese brands successfully used the argument to avoid a recall of models that were found to have asbestos containing gaskets.

In a nutshell, the requirements are:

  • All vehicles must be certified as “asbestos free” before they can be imported. 
  • For older models, Border Force requires certification by a properly accredited lab. Other forms of certification, particularly an owner declaration, are unlikely to be accepted.
  • Significant fines and penalties, including potential loss of the vehicle, may be applied.
  • The export of asbestos containing materials is also banned.

Other points to consider:

  • Many countries consider less than one percent asbestos content to be asbestos-free. This is not the case in Australia. Here, no asbestos means just that.
  • Local asbestos testing and clearing is very expensive. To control costs, testing and removal should be done overseas rather than when the vehicle arrives in Australia.
  • Asbestos removal costs can be somewhat open-ended and dependent on what work is necessary.
  • Many European vehicles built prior to the 1980’s contain large amounts of asbestos, which may prove impractical to remove. 
  • Vehicles that have asbestos containing body deadener are difficult and costly to remediate.
  • Border Force may not accept overseas test results and can order local retesting (at the importers cost).

Tips for prospective importers:

  • It’s important to use a customs broker/forwarder who’s experienced with cars, knows the system and has contacts with reliable freight depots. 
  • Seek out a broker/forwarder that has reliable overseas contacts for asbestos removal and testing.

Advice from a 35-year veteran of the forwarding industry is to just play by the rules. Have the vehicle tested and any asbestos removed before it gets here, so that if it is checked when it arrives it will pass. It will be much cheaper in the long run.

For more information on import requirements visit the Australian Border Force website.