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Asbestos in Automobiles

Asbestos was used frequently throughout the automobile industry prior to the late 1970s. The material offered insulation and heat resistance to vehicle components that faced high temperatures. However, such parts can become easily damaged or undergo wear and tear and require replacement, all of which can disturb the asbestos.

Automobile mechanics, technicians and other automotive workers have been susceptible to asbestos exposure and at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases like malignant mesothelioma. In 2016, there were 749,900 workers in the automotive service technicians and mechanics field, which doesn’t include individuals from around the United States that work on their own automobiles.

Automobiles and Asbestos Use

Automobiles and automotive components frequently contained asbestos for durability, insulation, heat resistance and fireproofing. Many automotive parts face high friction or intense heat from the engine, relying on asbestos for long-lasting use and to not catch on fire. Such asbestos automotive products include:

There are many different ways that employees in the automotive industry have been exposed to asbestos. If involved with the construction process, workers frequently had to cut and trim pieces of asbestos insulation to fit the car body, which could disturb asbestos fibers.

Auto mechanics and technicians have been exposed when replacing old parts, repairing components that have faced heavy wear and tear and disposing of old equipment. Brake grinding, for example, was an action that frequently disturbed asbestos when malformations on brake components were sanded down, releasing the fibers. Brakes are one of the most common components to contain asbestos. Asbestos brakes may contain the material in the brake pads, brake linings, brake houses, brake drums, brake housings and brake shoes, easily releasing fibers during repairs.

If large amounts of asbestos are disturbed, asbestos fibers could end up on repair shop floors or throughout the air, exposing anyone working within the shop. When cleaning, vacuum cleaners and fans can also easily disturb the fibers and increase the risk of others being exposed. Family members have also experienced secondary asbestos exposure from workers bringing home asbestos dust on their clothing and gear.

Automotive Workers and Mesothelioma Risk

When asbestos-containing automotive products are built, damaged or repaired, fibers can easily become disturbed, entering the air. Asbestos fibers are microscopic and can easily and unknowingly be inhaled or ingested. Once the fibers enter the body, they can then become lodged in the linings of the lungs, abdomen, heart or testicles, causing irritation and eventually, could lead to mesothelioma cancer.

Anyone who has worked within the automotive industry, particularly prior to the 1970s, could have been exposed to asbestos. Even though its use has been greatly restricted, workers can still be exposed when working with older vehicles, equipment or parts that were created when asbestos was still used frequently. It’s also important to note that it could take 10 – 50 years for mesothelioma patients to recognize symptoms due to the long latency period of the disease.

Asbestos Regulations for the Automotive Industry

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have established and shared regulations that apply to the automotive industry to help protect workers from asbestos-related health risks. Their recommendations differ based on if a shop is performing more or less than five brake and clutch jobs a week and pertain to inspections, disassemblies, assemblies and repairs.

Regulations for Shops with Over Five Brake/Clutch Jobs a Week
  • Negative-Pressure Enclosure/HEPA Vacuum System Method: A secured enclosure is fitted tightly around a brake assembly or clutch assembly to hold the entire component and prevent the release of asbestos fibers into the breathing zone of the worker.
  • Low Pressure/Wet Cleaning Method: A wetting agent is used to flood the brake or clutch assembly and fluid is then caught in a catch basin below. All clutch and brake components are wetted and cleaned thoroughly prior to handling, and basin contents should be disposed of according to OSHA regulations.
  • Regulations for Shops with Less Than Five Brake/Clutch Jobs a Week
  • Wet Wipe Method: A spray bottle or other water distribution mechanism is used to apply water to the clutch or brake assembly with a low-pressure spray. The assembly components are then wiped down with a cloth, which is then contained, labeled and disposed of according to OSHA regulations.
  • Asbestos is not visible to the naked eye, so automotive workers cannot just look at a part to determine whether or not it contains asbestos. Asbestos precautionary procedures such as those listed above are necessary in all cases where asbestos may be present.

    Author: Tara Strand

    Senior Content Writer

    Tara Strand

    Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli

    Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their Families

    Jennifer R. Lucarelli
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    Sources

    Bureau of Labor Statistics. Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics. Occupational Outlook Handbook.

    Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Work practices and engineering controls for automotive brake and clutch inspection, disassembly, repair and assembly -- Mandatory.

    Roggli VL, Sharma A, et al. Malignant Mesothelioma and Occupational Exposure to Asbestos: A Clinicopathological Correlation of 1445 Cases. Ultrastructural Pathology. July 2009;55-65. doi: 10.1080/01913120252959227

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