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Asbestos car parts used in vehicles exported to Australia

Asbestos car parts used in vehicles exported to Australia

Asbestos has been found to be present in over 23,000 Chinese vehicles imported to Australia. The companies Great Wall Motors and Chery Motors have been forced to apologise after asbestos material was found to be present in the engine and exhaust gaskets of the cars.

The asbestos materials were initially discovered when sets of spare parts were sent to Australia from China. Whilst being inspected at the Australian Customs and Border Control, asbestos was found to be present in several of the engine and exhaust gaskets. When Customs contacted GWM and Chery about this, they were reassured that the two companies did not use asbestos in the production process. Asbestos was later found in as many as eight gaskets per vehicle[1].

A spokesman for GWM said that the company became aware of asbestos in the vehicles in April 2012, at which point GWM began to use alternative materials for the exports to Australia. As both GWM and Chery export their vehicles to several countries, however, it is unclear how regularly asbestos is used. News of the asbestos find in Australia has already prompted South Africa to inspect Chery vehicles[2].

No vehicle replacement planned:

Initially there was some discussion of a recall of the vehicles, however, both the Chinese car companies and Ateco, the Australian distributor of the Chinese vehicles, have said that they will not immediately replace the affected engine gaskets. Ateco commissioned a study into the risks the asbestos poses and concluded that it poses only ‘negligible’ risks to drivers and passengers, and a ‘very low’ safety risk to any mechanic working on the cars. This statement has been confirmed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission: however, they have advised against consumers performing any DIY maintenance on the car components. Instead of recalling the vehicles, warning stickers will be placed on all the cars containing asbestos, with the parts being replaced when the cars are taken in for a regular service[3].

Asbestos has been banned in all forms in Australia since 2004, raising questions as to why the companies were using asbestos for this market. The discovery will have a significant impact on the car companies’ reputation: GWM in particular has been looking to expand their market into the EU, where asbestos in all forms is banned entirely. In light of this revelation, expanding into European markets could prove more difficult.

More worrying, however, is how the asbestos could affect both drivers and mechanics in Australia. Despite the fact that Ateco and GWM has stated that the asbestos poses only a ‘negligible’ risk, the decision to not recall the vehicles has prompted an outcry amongst mechanics and asbestos campaigners across Australia.

The CEO of the Australian Motor Traders Association, James McCall, said that all affected parts should be replaced immediately, calling the decision “disgraceful”, as “the damage that asbestos in motor vehicles has done to repairers and people in our side of the industry over the years is tragic”[4]. His complaints were echoed by the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia, which argued: “They’ve got to remove these cars off the road. Not every brake mechanic or car mechanic will know about this”[5].  As asbestos exposure only needs to occur once for a serious disease to develop, it is surprising that more is not being done to protect mechanics and those who have bought the cars.

Thousands of people in Australia are diagnosed with asbestos related diseases every year, particularly workers in heavy industry and mechanics, where the use of asbestos was commonplace. The fact that Australian mechanics may have been exposed unknowingly to asbestos once again raises serious questions about how asbestos exports are handled today. Although asbestos in all forms is completely banned in many countries, including the UK, several countries continue to mine and use asbestos on a daily basis, particularly Russia, Canada and China. If asbestos components can be imported so easily into Australia, this raises questions about whether the same situation could occur in the UK.