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While asbestos is not as heavily used as it once was, this harmful mineral can still cause illness. Automotive workers are at particular risk of occupational asbestos exposure because clutches, brakes, heat seals, and other parts still contain asbestos in many vehicles. Workers who are replacing or fixing these parts, or even cleaning up in the workplace, are at risk of exposure.
If you work in this field it is important that you understand the risks and where you may encounter asbestos. You have a right to training and appropriate safety gear to protect yourself from asbestos exposure on the job. Know your rights and what to do if you feel you are being dangerously exposed to asbestos and being put at risk of developing mesothelioma or lung cancer.
How Asbestos Was Used in Vehicles
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of asbestos in the manufacturing, processing, and importation of certain, specific products. Those specified are construction materials but the EPA also banned asbestos in any new uses. This does not include car parts. Most manufacturers of new cars stopped using asbestos in the 1990s because of the health risks. The biggest risk to automotive workers today is in older or aftermarket parts. Car parts that may contain asbestos include:
- Brake pads and brake linings
- Clutch assemblies
- Valve rings
- Valve stem packing
- Friction materials
- Heat seals
Where Asbestos Still Lurks
Many mechanics falsely believe that asbestos is no longer a risk for them. While many uses of asbestos have been outlawed in the U.S., there is no asbestos ban. Older car parts still contain asbestos, and it is perfectly legal to keep using them. When mechanics work on older cars or with these older parts, they are still at risk of inhaling asbestos fibers from the dust created during maintenance and repair work.
Older cars and car parts pose a risk but so do aftermarket parts. Any parts that come from overseas, especially those from India or China, can contain asbestos. Even some new, high-end and luxury cars imported from other countries may have asbestos in certain parts.
How Automotive Workers Are Exposed to Asbestos
Asbestos that is contained and not disrupted poses a low risk of exposure. It is when the fibers break loose from a material that a person nearby may inhale or ingest them without even realizing it is happening. Any dust produced by automotive work with asbestos-containing parts could lead to exposure.
Hoodliners and heat shields in older cars can cause exposure for people who tear them out to be replaced. The disturbance of the material can expose the asbestos and loosen the fibers. With brakes, dust gets trapped in the housing just through normal use. When a mechanic removes the brakes the dust can get into the air and on surfaces. The same is true with clutch parts. Dust accumulates in the assembly and is released when taken apart.
The Consequences of Asbestos Exposure
If you are inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers, you may not get sick, but the heavier the exposure and the longer duration of time that you experience exposure, the bigger the risk is. Those tiny fibers that you may not even notice can get lodged in tissues in the body, like little needles. There they can cause damage and inflammation that lead to disease.
It usually takes decades for the consequences of exposure to be felt. Respiratory symptoms may include difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, chest pains, and coughing. Asbestos may trigger damage in and around the lungs that causes pleural mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis, a progressive lung-scarring.
Ingested fibers can trigger peritoneal mesothelioma or other cancers of the abdominal organs and tissues. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include swelling and pain in the abdomen, a feeling of fullness, bowel obstruction, constipation, nausea, weight loss, anemia, and diarrhea.
Following Safe Work Guidelines
If you are an auto mechanic, even if you don’t directly handle these parts that can contain asbestos, it is essential to understand and follow safety guidelines as outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA outlines specific practices, step-by-step, for working safely with clutches and brakes specifically. There are a few different acceptable methods for safe brake and clutch work:
- One is to use a negative-pressure enclosure with a HEPA vacuum system. This encloses the components and uses a vacuum to remove any asbestos fibers released. The enclosure is clear and fits around the parts so that mechanics can still see and work on them.
- Another method is to use low-pressure sprays to wet brake and clutch assemblies. The water keeps fiber dust down and prevents it from being inhaled. The runoff is collected and disposed of in a safe way.
- For shops that only do occasional clutch and break jobs, OSHA suggests that a wet wipe method is adequate. This involves using a spray bottle to wet parts and then a cloth to wipe them down and to remove dust.
OSHA also recommends that mechanics assume that all brakes and clutches contain asbestos. It is not possible to look at a clutch assembly or the dust from clutches and brakes and know if there is asbestos in the dust. Making the assumption that it is there keeps workers safe.
Car Enthusiasts and Asbestos
Even if you don’t work in the automotive industry or as a mechanic, you could be at risk of asbestos exposure if you work on your own car. If you use aftermarket car parts, especially brakes and clutches, in your project cars, they probably contain asbestos.
While new care manufacturers rarely use asbestos in components today, older parts and aftermarket parts still contain asbestos. Many aftermarket parts that project car enthusiasts choose are from overseas because these are cheaper options. But most of the parts imported from India or China contain asbestos. According to a report on this issue, the number of imported asbestos brakes used in the U.S. increased by 83 percent between 1996 and 2006.
Choose higher-cost, U.S.-made brakes and clutches for your project car to avoid exposure. Or, if you do work with aftermarket parts, make sure you do so safely. Use protective clothing and a respirator. Wet asbestos-containing parts as you work with them, and clean up carefully and safely.
Working with cars can still be hazardous to your health because of the potential for exposure to lingering asbestos in certain components. Mechanics working regularly on clutches and brakes face the biggest risks, but anyone working in a shop or on their own cars must take care to avoid exposure. If you were exposed at work without your knowledge, and then you got sick from an asbestos-related illness, you could have a case to make in a lawsuit. Contact an experienced asbestos lawyer to help you decide what to do next.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.