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Toxic car loophole - Jamaica has no mechanism to police contaminated Japan imports

Published:Sunday | May 6, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Marcella Scarlett, Business Reporter

No one is denying that the possibility that vehicles with water damage or exposed to radiation can enter the Jamaican market from Japan and end up in people's garages, but they all insist the likelihood is slim despite the absence of any mechanism to police it.

Several websites of Japanese dealers, some of which are used by Jamaican used-car dealers, have damaged cars on display, with a note in fine print at the bottom of the vehicle stating "this car was exposed to radiation" or "water damaged".

These cars are selling for as low as JPY750, which translates to J$817 based on currency rates published by Bank of Jamaica.

Some of the vehicles are also being auctioned and can be bought for similar low prices.

Both the new and used-car dealers say they have no dealings with such cars, but they acknowledge that neither the border control division of Customs nor the Trade Board which issues import permits for vehicles has a mechanism to check whether a car is contaminated with radiation.

Banking on dealer integrity

Sunday Business was referred from one agency to another when clarification was sought from state regulators, but not even the chief enviro-watchdog, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), could proffer an answer as to how such vehicles could be detected.

NEPA referred Sunday Business to an official at the Ministry of Health - home of the Environmental Control Division. She was not reached for comment despite several tries.

But from the sparse information available, the system set up around car imports appears to be banking on the integrity of dealers.

"As it relates to new cars, the manufacturers have guarantees that none of the vehicles could be exported out of Japan," said Kent LaCroix, president of the Automobile Dealers Association.

"We are satisfied that the new cars are radiation-free and that they are not water damaged," he said.

Lynvalle Hamilton, president of the Jamaica Used Car Dealers Association (JUCDA), gave similar assurances.

"It is very unlikely that vehicles will come with radiation," he said. "The cars are checked and screened very carefully before they are loaded on the ships and Trade Board will not give a licence to get a vehicle in from say Fukushima."

Fukushima is located in the east of Japan, the site of the nuclear accident that followed the tsunami and earthquake that hit in March 2011. It was said to be the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986.

Checks with the Trade Board show that the procedure to get an import licence has not been altered to take into consideration the natural disaster that happened last year March in Japan, nor do they discriminate by destination when issuing import licences.

"The Trade Board follows key criterion based on the motor vehicle import policy and the key criterion is the age of the vehicle. We don't look at it by way of country (of origin)", said Trade Administrator Douglas Webster.

"We are authorised under Section 210 of the Customs Act that a prospective importer should not even make shipping arrangements before the import permit is issued. Trade Board acts on the document," he said.

Webster said that if the specific damage could not be ascertained beforehand, and if there is no rider in the document relating to the degree of damage or contamination, then the Trade Board would not know the status of the vehicle.

Imported vehicles are inspected on arrival at the port but this is done by customs agents who do visual checks, and would not have the equipment required to detect radiation.

"From a legal perspective, the onus is on the manufacturer and the dealer as the agents, to carry out any due diligence," the trade administrator said.

"To restrict import from a particular geographic area is quite okay in principle but we have to be careful about anything that would seem to be discriminatory in trade, for example WTO requirements and rules. As an importing jurisdiction, we have to be very cautious," he said.

Potential exists

Ken Shaw, a past president of JUCDA, says the potential for contaminated vehicles entering Jamaica exists, but suggested that no dealer was likely to deliberately acquire them.

"It can come accidentally," said Shaw. "Japan normally checks the cars to ensure that none of them have radiation particles or are water damaged. Ever since the tsunami, the Japanese government has ordered test to be done to ensure that none of these cars leave the country and Jamaica has sent a diplomatic note to Japan in an effort to ensure that none of the cars coming from Japan were exposed to radiation or water damage," he said.

Its still unclear whether it was actually a diplomatic note that was dispatched to Tokyo, but Shaw says he was asked by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce to have an input in drafting letter that was eventually sent.

"There is nothing on our side, but the Japanese are honouring their side of the agreement," Shaw said.

Japan is the major supplier of used vehicles to the Jamaican used-car market.

Unlike Canada and the United States, Japanese laws do not require sellers to produce a history of the car ownership, title information, flood damage history, odometer readings, accident indicators such as airbag deployments, vehicle use and service records.

Exposure to a lot of radiation over a short  period of time can cause burns or other radiation sickness. Exposure to even small amounts of radiation over a long period of time raises the risk of cancer to several parts of the body such as the skin, lungs, and breasts.

It can also cause leukaemia and aplactic anaemia as well as nausea, bloody vomiting, and diarrhoea.

Water-damaged vehicles are very expensive to repair and the buyer may not even be aware until the vehicle starts to malfunction due to electrical or transmission problems, industry experts say.

Flood waters can cause damage to a vehicle's computer and electrical systems, as well as potentially causing anti-lock braking and airbag systems to malfunction.