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Asbestos will stay in Chinese cars

"Everything we import now from China is free of asbestos. We have checked the cars and they comply".

Despite an official recall, the asbestos gaskets fitted to the Great Wall and Chery vehicles will stay in place until they need repairs or routine survicing, or if the owner demands their removal.

The decision comes as the importer of Great Wall and Chery, Ateco Automotive, admits the use of asbestos - which was outlawed in cars in 2004 - could have damaged the budget brands. "I wouldn't think it would be helpful," Ateco spokesman, Daniel Cotterill, says.

Ateco forced a production shutdown in China when it discovered the use of the asbestos gaskets during an Australian audit, despite earlier written guarantees from the Chinese brands. They have since found an alternative, asbestos-free, supplier of the gaskets and production has resumed to keep pace with Australian deliveries.

"Everything we import now from China is free of asbestos. We have checked the cars and they comply," Cotterill says. "The Chinese are well aware of the gravity of the situation. They had to establish their own internal audit of their suppliers to find out how this happened."

But the cars already with owners will not be touched, despite a recall campaign that will include fitting a warning sticker. Instead, owners will be advised by letter of the problem and sent a copy of a risk assessment commission by Ateco from consultants in occupational health and safety, Hibbs and Associates.

It concludes there are "negligible" asbestos risks to either owners or mechanics working on the car. "Even if carried out in an uncontrolled way, handling and removing these gaskets constitutes a very low asbestos related health risk," the report says. Ateco says it has approval from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for its recall program, even though it does not include a compulsory change of parts.

"The intention is to replace the gaskets only if, and when, necessary. The key thing is to make sure that anyone who replaces one is aware of the situation," Cotterill says.