Thanks to the relatively new rules that govern the use of asbestos-containing products, today’s automotive mechanics are a lot safer than they used to be. Unfortunately, people who worked in the industry before 1980 weren’t as lucky. It wasn’t that long ago when asbestos was commonly used in car brake pads, clutches, and other parts. As a result, many mechanics would come into direct contact with these parts every day—it was just part of the job. Little did they know that by just showing up and working hard they were potentially putting themselves—and their families—at risk for developing mesothelioma and other dangerous diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.
Why Are Auto Mechanics at High Risk?
Parts likes brakes and clutches are used every time a car is driven, so they must be made to stand up to high heat and pressure. Companies chose to use asbestos in the manufacturing of many automobile products because of its natural strength, flexibility, and heat resistance.
The problem is that over time these parts wear down. And when they do, they can release dust that contains tiny asbestos fibers. This dust may become trapped in the nooks and crannies of the car. Whenever the car is serviced, that dust can get released into the air, where it can be inhaled or swallowed—which may eventual lead to the development of serious diseases, such as mesothelioma.
Sadly, even after asbestos-related health dangers had become widely known, many companies chose to look the other way—putting auto mechanics and their families at risk by continuing to use asbestos in the production of their products. Asbestos is still used in some automotive products, but its use is regulated and the amounts of this dangerous material allowed in the manufacturing process are kept to a minimum.
Working on Older Cars Is Risky Business
Today, car repair do-it-yourselfers and hobbyists remain at risk of being exposed to asbestos. How? Even though guidelines now limit the amount of asbestos used in new auto parts, many people continue to work on cars that were built in the 1980s or earlier—and these cars likely contain parts made with asbestos.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cautions that all clutch and brake work be done by professionals familiar with requirements and best practices for working with materials that may contain asbestos. The EPA goes on to state that
“although the use of asbestos in friction products is declining annually, it remains a substantial source of potential exposure.”
Mesothelioma Can Take Decades to Develop
It only takes one inhaled asbestos fiber to cause mesothelioma, and with so many potential sources of repeated workplace exposure, it’s understandable why auto mechanics are such a high-risk group.
Mesothelioma often takes a long time to develop—as much as 20-50 years. That means auto mechanics who were exposed decades ago may just now be receiving a diagnosis. Today, there is still potential for on the job asbestos exposure, but the threat is much lower due to public awareness and much needed safety regulations.
Protecting Today’s Auto Mechanics
The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health reports that “overall evidence suggests there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.” Fortunately, government regulations and best practices are now in place that limit workers’ exposure to the deadly mineral and make the workplace a safer environment than it was for workers in years past. Auto mechanics are advised to assume that every auto brake or clutch component contains asbestos and to be sure to follow OSHA regulations and best practices for safe handling.
The EPA offers these important “Dos and Don’ts” for home mechanics:
- Do use pre-ground, ready-to-install car parts.
- Do use low drill speeds on brakes or clutch linings to keep down the amount of
- Do use machinery with a local exhaust dust collection system equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration to prevent dust exposure and work area contamination.
- Do change into clean clothes before going inside your home, and wash soiled clothes separately.
- Do minimize exposure to others by keeping bystanders, as well as food and drinks, away from the work area.
- Don’t use compressed air for cleaning.
- Don’t clean brakes or clutches with a dry rag, brush (wet or dry), or garden hose.
- Don’t use an ordinary wet-dry vac without a HEPA filter to vacuum dust.
- Don’t take work clothing inside your home or track dust through the house after performing brake and clutch work. Doing so risks exposing your family to dust particles that may contain asbestos.