Mainland China owners get more than they bargained for with trophy cars

The health of drivers is suffering because of toxins contained in seat covers, say lawyers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 4:29pm

When Wu Ming brought home his Mercedes Benz in 2009, health problems were the last thing he was expecting from his trophy car.

But last year, more than 300 Mercedes owners on the mainland complained about excessive formaldehyde levels inside their cars. Some BMW owners have also been complaining online.

Formaldehyde, contained in several components such as seat and roof covers, is a toxic substance that may trigger headache, nausea and vomiting.

"It may even cause diseases as serious as cancer," said Qiu Baochang, a director of Beijing-based Huijia Law Firm.

Qiu, also the head of a group of lawyers for the China Consumers' Association, said the main problem for consumers was lax regulation on the mainland.

"China only has a 'suggestive standard' for air quality [inside cars], rather than a mandatory standard," he said.

China only has a 'suggestive standard' for air quality [inside cars], rather than a mandatory standard

He said such a regulation should be mandatory so that manufacturers were forced to treat the air quality issue more seriously.

Wu said that although he found the smell in his Mercedes Benz C200 "strange", he assumed it was normal for all new vehicles. However, the situation worsened over time and he took the car to a service outlet to get the air-conditioning system cleaned. But things only got worse. "Now it smells like a dead rat."

Zheng Chuankai, a lawyer at Beijing Chaoyang Law Firm, who has been following the situation for six months, said it was difficult to know how many car owners had been plagued by the problem but he estimates the number could be as high as 10,000.

Buyers across the country have taken their cars to Beijing for check-ups.

"Last week, a Benz owner in Shanghai told me that the formaldehyde level in his car is double that of the country's standard, according to the result of a check-up," Zheng said.

The lawyer said if the same thing happened in Europe or the US, the car manufacturer would have to recall the product. "But in China carmakers only need to recall their products when they threaten personal security. A health hazard is not mentioned as a criterion."

He said many Mercedes and BMW owners felt drained by the amount of time and money they had put in to try to solve the problem, with no certainty of success. So they tended to sell at a huge discount the cars that cost at least 300,000 yuan (HK$370,600).

"An air quality examination costs more than 10,000 yuan," Zheng said.

Mercedes Benz and BMW could not be reached for comment.