Asbestos has been a component of brake pads and linings, clutch facings and various gaskets for many years. Millions of brakes and clutches on cars, trucks, and on auto parts shelves still contain dangerous levels of the material, although it is not generally used in the production of new brakes or clutches.
You cannot tell if a brake or clutch contains asbestos just by looking at it. Therefore, auto mechanics and do-it-yourself auto enthusiasts should proceed as if all brakes and clutches contained asbestos. All new vehicles prior to 1987 contained new asbestos brakes, and many replacement brakes even today still contain asbestos.
As asbestos brake and clutch materials wear down through normal automobile use, asbestos-containing dust is released to the outside environment. Much of this material also becomes trapped within the clutch space or brake housing. The asbestos can then be released when repair and replacement work is done. Using compressed air or vacuuming the brake residue with a regular shop or home vacuum further spreads the asbestos dust.
Mechanics who service and repair brakes and clutches risk heavy exposure to asbestos. Using a compressed air hose to clean drum brakes can release millions of asbestos fibers in the air around the mechanic’s face. Even hitting a brake drum with a hammer can release fibers.
Besides being highly likely to breath in asbestos fibers, mechanics can get asbestos on their hands, swallowing small particles when eating. And once released into the air, asbestos lingers in the shop and can be breathed by customers as well as by the mechanics. The mechanic may also carry asbestos dust home on work clothing, endangering family members.
For auto shops that do five or more brake jobs per year, government regulations require the use of special equipment to reduce asbestos exposure. One method requires a transparent enclosure around the brake system and clean up with a vacuum that has a HEPA or High Efficiency Particulate Air filter. In another procedure, low-pressure spray equipment is used to wet down the brake assembly and the runoff is collected in a basin. Auto mechanics must also dispose of asbestos brake and clutch dust in sealed, labeled, impermeable containers.
Although various methods of reducing asbestos dust in garages and repair shops are available, whether or not they are used is another question. Over a three month period, investigators from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recovered high levels of asbestos dust from floors, work areas and tool bins in brake repair garages in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Richmond, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The study may be just one example of the many repair shops and garages that continue to pose health hazards to their employees and the public.
Home auto mechanics who work with asbestos brakes and clutches are also at risk for inhaling asbestos. The problem may be intensified because they do not have the equipment found in auto shops.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises these do-it-yourselfers to avoid cleaning brakes with compressed air, because asbestos dust may be released into the air. They should also use pre-ground ready-to-install parts whenever possible.
To help protect auto mechanics from unnecessary asbestos exposure, OSHA issued a safety bulletin with best practices for dealing with asbestos dust from brakes and clutches. An auto mechanic asbestos exposure could be an option for those who suffered harm after exposure. Get in touch with a seasoned attorney to learn more.