The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission yesterday decided to ban the importation and use of chrysotile (white) asbestos from the end of 2003.

This date allows for a change-over from asbestos-based products (largely brake pads) to non-asbestos materials.

Australia currently imports around 1,500 tons of chrysotile asbestos and an estimated one million products are produced each year containing asbestos.

Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer of the lining of the lung and abdomen. The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) estimates 16,000 mesothelioma deaths and 40,000 lung cancer deaths between 1987 and 2010.

The bulk of these deaths are related to past widespread use and mining of asbestos. However, there is now an emerging group of workers developing mesothelioma who have worked in what is claimed to be the well-controlled industries such as friction part manufacture and repair.

In July 2000, the World Trade Organisation upheld the 1997 French ban on the importation of chrysotile, white asbestos. Bans have existed in nine other European countries for much of the nineties (Iceland 1983, Norway 1984, Denmark 1986, Sweden 1986, Austria 1990, Netherlands 1991, Finland 1992, Italy 1992, Germany 1993 and the United Kingdom 1999). These countries are already complying with the European Union Directive that requires the banning of white asbestos by all EU member states by January 2005.

The ACTU has welcomed the decision to cease the use of chrysotile asbestos.

Bill Mansfield, ACTU Assistant Secretary, said:

“Asbestos has had a terrible impact on Australian workers and their families. Tens of thousands have died due to the use of this product.”

“The safeguards recommended for asbestos use have been too often ignored even after the deadly effects of the product were known.”

“Corporations have also failed to act responsibly in a number of cases to stop using the product when alternatives were readily available.”

“Although the ban on asbestos is overdue the ACTU congratulates the tripartite National Occupational Health and Safety Commission for its actions and acknowledges the support of employers and the nine governments represented on the Commission for the ban on all forms of asbestos in the future.”