Classic vehicles and direct imports might contain deadly asbestos

Steve McQueen was an icon of the silver screen in the 1960s and 1970s, and that included portraying characters and even producing films popular with car, bike and racing enthusiasts.

Three of his biggest now-classic films which automotive enthusiasts would be interested in would have to be 1963's The Great Escape, 1968's Bullitt and 1971's Le Mans.

McQueen was an avid fan of cars, motorsport and motorbikes himself, earning money in motorcycle races while studying to be an actor in his 20s. He also did much of his own less-dangerous stunt driving and lots of the riding we saw in The Great Escape. He even donned a German uniform and chased his own character on another bike in one scene, although for McQueen's character it was Bud Ekins who did possibly the most famous motorcycle jump in film history.

Be asbestos aware when it comes to older vehicles and importing parts. Photo: Shutterstock

Be asbestos aware when it comes to older vehicles and importing parts. Photo: Shutterstock

Bullitt gave us an exciting realistic car chase through the streets and outskirts of San Francisco with McQueen's undercover police officer character in a dark green 1968 Mustang, and the baddies in a black 1968 Dodge Charger. Le Mans used some real footage from the 1970 race captured with a GT40 camera car entered for this purpose (along with some staged footage done in real time and played back at real speed).

However, unlike James Dean and Paul Walker who lost their lives in speeding-related car crashes on public roads, an avoidable misbehaviour such as this was not the cause of McQueen's demise in 1980 at the age of 50. What took McQueen's life instead was pleural mesothelioma, one of the cancers associated with exposure to airborne asbestos fibres, and for which there is still no known cure.

There is no safe level of exposure, such illnesses take one or more decades to develop, and he was exposed to multiple sources of asbestos as a younger man. One was removing asbestos insulation from pipes aboard a troop ship while he was in the Marines before he studied acting. Later potential sources included movie and sound stage insulation, and some race gear and helmets of the era.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, we still have to contend with multiple potential sources of asbestos to this day, and an estimated 4000 Australians die each year from past exposure. It was used in thousands of building materials, including insulation, before Australia banned them in 1989. As a consequence, the federal Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency estimates that it remains in a third of Australian homes. It's also still in many other buildings built before 1990.

There wasn't a complete ban on all uses of asbestos in Australia until the end of 2003, and so for older vehicles it could be found in many things from brake and clutch linings to hood linings and fuse boxes, as well as seals and gaskets and even some valvetrain parts.

So, just as you need to with your house or garage, be mindful of this when doing DIY work on older vehicles and learn whether yours is likely to contain parts with asbestos.

Worryingly though, some countries still allow asbestos in automotive parts (and more), including the USA and parts of Asia. But, "the importation of asbestos into Australia is prohibited," states the federal government's Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

That makes it extra important to be asbestos aware, particularly if you were planning on importing parts directly or a whole classic vehicle. "Vehicles that were not specifically manufactured for the Australian market might be considered at risk of containing asbestos. You are responsible for ensuring your vehicle does not contain any asbestos before you or your supplier ship it to Australia," the department says.

That will mean getting it tested to prove the vehicle is not contaminated. "Where your vehicle is deemed a risk of containing asbestos, the Australian Border Force will require assurances that high-risk parts or components do not contain asbestos. If adequate assurance is not provided, you will face delays and be responsible for costs incurred when the vehicle is held at the border for the purposes of sampling and testing."

This story Steve McQueen's legacy is a reminder to be asbestos aware first appeared on The Canberra Times.