NZ bans imports of nearly all products containing asbestos

Imports of products containing asbestos will no longer be allowed, the environment minister says.

The importation of raw asbestos is already banned.

Minister Nick Smith said exposure to asbestos posed a risk of respiratory disease and was the single biggest cause of work-related fatalities, responsible for the deaths of 170 people a year.

An inventory released by the Ministry for the Environment in 2014 shows asbestos is no longer imported for use in buildings or where members of the public are likely to be exposed to it. But it is still imported for a limited number of specialist products, such as gaskets, seals and brake linings.

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“The Government recognises there are a few specialised uses for which there is no practical alternative. For that reason, there is scope to be granted a permit to import – but only in very select circumstances,” Smith said.

“A permit will only be issued if there is genuinely no alternative product available, or if the alternative would be disproportionately expensive. In addition, an importer would have to be able to show that any risk of asbestos exposure can be safely managed.

“I expect the only people or organisations likely to need to import these kinds of products will be very limited and associated with older machinery, and a small number of vintage plane or ship restorers. The Environmental Protection Authority will consider applications for permits case-by-case.”

Mike Bradshaw, of the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust, said there were relatively few pieces of equipment left that contained asbestos. He said it was used on all railway machinery built until the 1920s but was phased out after that.

His organisation had replaced all existing asbestos in its machinery in the 1980s.

Graeme Swan, MTA’s repair sector specialist, said the ban was unlikely to be a problem for the New Zealand automotive sector, either. He said most major manufacturers had stopped using asbestos.

“MTA would support the government in this decision, for the health benefits it would provide.”

The ban will not affect asbestos in existing buildings or products. The existing stock of products containing asbestos is managed through other legislation – primarily the Health and Safety at Work Act regulations – and such products are phased out and safely disposed of as they reach the end of their useful life.

“The decision to ban asbestos-containing products was made this month, and the necessary Orders in Council are currently being drafted. The prohibition will take effect on October 1,” Smith said.

“This ban is part of the Government’s programme of reducing exposure to harmful products. It will bring New Zealand into line with overseas jurisdictions such as Australia, and will save lives.”