Just as the Chinese are trying to persuade consumers that their cars can be trusted, Australian customs officials have discovered that 23,000 Chinese cars were using asbestos in engine and exhaust gaskets.

The cars are now subject to a recall and will have the illegal gaskets replaced. While safety recalls are a regular occurrence in the car industry, they are almost always for things that have gone wrong at the manufacturing or assembly stage. We cannot think of another case where the car manufacturer was using a part whose actual design was illegal in western markets. Recalls are also usually made when car companies discover a problem, not when customs officials run checks for dangerous substances.

The models concerned were made by Great Wall and Chery, although not all their vehicles used the illegal gaskets. There is no danger to owners as long as the gaskets are not disturbed – hence the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has warned that, "consumers should not perform do-it-yourself maintenance that might disturb these gaskets". ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said, "Asbestos is a prohibited hazardous substance and these engines and exhaust systems should only be worked on by qualified personnel using appropriate safety procedures."

Asbestos is certainly hazardous, as the fibres become airborne if the asbestos is disturbed. They can then enter the lungs, increasing the risk of lung cancer. Asbestos was completely banned in Australia in 2004 in the European Union in 2006.

A spokesman for the Australian company that imported the cars in good faith, Ateco, told Reuters that they had been assured by Great Wall and Chery that production had been halted and measures put in place to fix the problem.

"We do have a letter of apology from the most senior levels of Great Wall management," the spokesman said.