Smog in Iran has reached alarming levels. Thousands of people die each year as a result. One factor that has previously gone unnoticed: brake pads containing asbestos from China.
Iranian headlines pertaining to the poor quality of Chinese imports are becoming less seldom by the day. Not long ago, a news agency reported that in addition to harmful and even lethal substances in Chinese products such as children's toys, shoes, fertilizer and medicine, harmful smog in Tehran could also be traced back to hazardous materials used in products imported from China. An ongoing investigation by standard control authorities found traces of up to 30 percent of asbestos in brake pads from China.
Tiny asbestos particles are released when drivers hit the brakes in their cars. "These particulates get into the air and are inhaled into the lungs, where they cause damage," lung specialist and deputy CEO of the German Lung Association Prof. Dr. Adrian Gillissen told DW. "As long as the asbestos is in something solid, it is harmless. But it becomes harmful when fibers are released into the environment. This happens in certain weather conditions and because of friction caused by the mechanics of brakes."
"The risk of cancer increases if a large amount of fibers is inhaled."
Gillissen explained why asbestos were particularly harmful to the human body: "Asbestos is very resilient - the body's defense cells have great difficulty getting rid of the substance." Thus the particles accumulate inside the body over long periods of time and trigger chronic inflammatory reactions in the lungs that can result in the formation of cancer or scar tissue.
Weather conditions were a further factor, he explained: "The cancer risk is much lower when there is wind and rain, as the particulates are then washed away. But when there is no wind, thick smog forms in cities such as Tehran and the exposure to the substance is far greater." He added that it was especially dangerous for children.
The production and the use of asbestos brake pads have been completely banned in the EU since the 1990s. And while there is also regulation for the production and import of products containing asbestos in Iran, it doesn't always seem to be bided by.
Quality dependent on import country
Iran is China's third largest provider of oil. Sanctions against Iran have led the country to increase trade with China. In May, 2011, an unprecedented agreement was signed by Tehran and Beijing which stated that Iran would receive 40 percent of its oil revenue in Chinese yuan and of that, 60 percent would be spent on Chinese imports.
"Iran basically lost control over its free choice of imports with that agreement," according to EU economic advisor Mehrdad Emadi. "A number of provisions and import restrictions which had been introduced up to that point then basically became invalid," Emadi explained.
Meanwhile, Chinese companies have created a ranking system for their exports. The products can be placed in categories ranging from A to E. A and B products are exported to countries with strict regulations and controls.
Brand names seeking to secure their market position know how quality can impact sales. "Chinese manufacturers are certainly aware of the fact that if they deliver poor quality products to European countries and European authorities find out, that no one will buy their products," Daniel Krahl, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told DW.
Iranian people pay the price
Around 90 percent of Chinese products imported to Iran are categorized as C, D or E products - products, which for health reasons, are banned in many countries, including countries belonging to the EU.
"China can produce just about everything ranging from top-quality to bottom-of-the-line products," Krahl said. "What is exported from China in the end depends solely on the price and regulation in import countries."
Chinese companies, according to Krahl, do not hold themselves accountable for the quality of their products. Instead, they believe the authorities of import countries are responsible. That means Iranian authorities need to become active in stepping up import controls and improving standards if they are to stop poor quality Chinese products coming into the country. With regard to the agreement with Beijing, on the other hand, that doesn't seem likely to happen: "Chinese companies know that Iran doesn't have many alternatives because of the sanctions and the country's general economic situation."
Economic advisor Emadi said he was worried about the status quo of the Iranian market, which is dominated by bottom-of-the-barrel Chinese products. "Chinese companies do not have to worry about being subjected to quality controls. And that's why massive amounts of cheap and dangerous products, which are otherwise banned in most other countries, end up with Iranian end-consumers."
Last year, Mehrdad Emadi was confronted on numerous occasions by medical experts and scientists from Iran over this "worrisome situation."
"The mass import and consumption of carcinogenic products is like a ticking time bomb which in the coming years will have grave, widespread effects."