Abestos alert in Chinese vehicles

ON ALERT: A Great Wall SUV.
ON ALERT: A Great Wall SUV.

A row in Australia about asbestos in the gaskets of some Chinese cars seems to have bypassed this country which has different rules about importing asbestos.

In Australia the issue affects 23,000 Great Wall and Chery vehicles which have some engine and exhaust gaskets containing asbestos.

Ateco Automotive, the company which imports the vehicles into Australia and this country, is advising the owners of the affected vehicles in Australia about the presence of the asbestos.

In letters being sent to Australian owners it said the gaskets contained a small amount of bonded asbestos, but posed no health risk to drivers or passengers of the vehicles.

The company planned not to change the gaskets until required as part of normal maintenance. It cautioned that the gaskets should be replaced by dealers or mechanics aware of correct handling procedures.

The car repair industry in Australia is unhappy with Ateco's approach.

James McCall, chief executive of the Motor Traders Association in Australia said it was "absolutely disgraceful".

"We fought hard to have asbestos abolished from vehicles because there were people dying," he said.

The importation and use of asbestos has been prohibited in Australia since 2004, and the problem with the gaskets was detected in imported spare parts by Australian Customs and Border Protection officers.

In New Zealand the rules are different. A Customs Service spokesman said components such as the gaskets could be imported into New Zealand, although importing asbestos in its raw state was prohibited without approval from the Environmental Protection Authority.

The Labour Group of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in this country said the issue with the gaskets was a timely reminder for those doing maintenance work on the vehicles involved to handle and dispose of asbestos-containing friction products with extreme caution.

"Asbestos is a hazardous substance and presents a significant health risk if a person is exposed to dust from using a wire brush or grinder on asbestos-containing materials."

Ian Stronach, spokesman for the Motor Trade Association in New Zealand, agreed it was timely the matter had been raised but did not expect it to be a significant issue.

Ateco spokesman Daniel Cotterill said no more Chery or Great Wall gaskets containing asbestos were being imported into either Australia or New Zealand.

Once the problem was discovered, Ateco had told the manufacturers to change to parts that did not contain asbestos, he said.

Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of car review website dogandlemon.com, called for this country to ban the import of goods containing asbestos.

"The health risks of asbestos were discovered 114 years ago, but New Zealand still allows goods made with asbestos to be freely imported."

In the motor industry, asbestos used to be commonly used in engine gaskets, clutches and brake parts, but most manufacturers phased out its use years ago.

Asbestos often killed people many years after they were exposed to it, with an estimated 10,000 people dying each year from asbestos-related diseases in the United States alone.

"Countless car workers have died young due to asbestos exposure. It’s time New Zealand followed Australia’s example and banned these products outright," Matthew-Wilson said.

-Fairfax NZ and Fairfax Australia