Asbestos

Asbestos in Automobiles

Along with virtually every other product of the Industrial Age, asbestos made its way into many parts and components of the personal automobile. Since the automobile industry got its start in the late 1890s, asbestos was used in:

  • brake pads and linings
  • clutch assemblies (including disks, flywheels and pressure plates)
  • hood liners (from the late 1930s onward)
  • gaskets and seals (particularly in exhaust components)
  • valve rings

Although attempts have been made to ban, or at least regulate asbestos in automotive and other products, these efforts have been only partially successful. In addition, because of the massive outsourcing of American manufacturing over the past 30 years to countries with little or no safety regulations, automotive parts containing significant amounts of asbestos continue to enter the country. Older vehicles, particularly those built prior to the 1980s, are likely to have many asbestos-containing components as well.

Automotive Worker Risks

Asbestos may be friable or non-friable. In the latter state, asbestos actually poses little in the way of danger. The mineral is hazardous when it begins to crumble into dust, releasing millions of deadly microscopic fibers into the air. In this state, asbestos is considered to be friable.

The friability issue is exacerbated by the fact that asbestos components are frequently found on moving parts. The asbestos used on brake linings and clutch disks cannot be anything but friable. These fibers are trapped in the brake and clutch housings until opened by an automotive repair technician, who winds up breathing them as well as getting them on hair and clothing - causing a risk of secondary exposure to family members when these fibers are introduced into the home.

Brakes and exhaust systems are particularly dangerous when it comes to asbestos exposure. Historically, the use of asbestos has been seen as necessary, because temperatures in these areas of the vehicle can rise to extremely high levels. Catalytic converters can also get extremely hot and pose a real hazard as these are located just under the seat.

Today, ceramic has largely replaced asbestos in more expensive, higher-quality components produced domestically. However, cheap discount parts from overseas are likely to contain asbestos.

Protection

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, automotive brake technicians should assume that all brake components have asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), as a visual inspection is not adequate for making this determination.

OSHA has also issued a number of recommendations for handling potential asbestos hazards in automotive brake repair facilities. In general, OSHA recommends that the use of shop vacuums and compressed air be avoided when cleaning brakes, as this can spread asbestos over a wide area. Likewise, the use of brushes and even wet rags and water hoses is not recommended, as this can still spread friable asbestos - which will remain and enter the atmosphere after the water has dried.

Automotive repair facilities that perform in excess of five brake repairs a week and shops that specialize in brake repair are subject to special regulations under OSHA. These include the use of a special container equipped with HEPA filters that surround brake and clutch assemblies, reducing the spread of asbestos fibers. You can learn more about automotive asbestos safety by going to the OSHA website at the Internet address provided below (scroll down to "Friction materials, including brakes").

If anything, those who work on their own vehicles are even more at risk, since these people are unlikely to have the specialized safety equipment that is normally available at professional automotive repair facilities. It is safest to have brake or clutch jobs done professionally; otherwise, the same OSHA standards that apply to commercial shops should be followed in your home garage.

Auto parts commonly contaminated with asbestos include: brakes, clutches, hoodliners, gaskets, heat seals, valve rings and packing.

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