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Asbestos Exposure: Auto Mechanics at Risk

Auto mechanics are exposed to asbestos on a regular basis by working on brakes, clutches, and heat seals. These components contain asbestos that breaks down and becomes airborne when parts begin to wear down.

Asbestos Hazards for Auto Mechanics

Auto mechanics have a high risk of exposure to asbestos in the workplace from handling certain car parts. Brakes, clutches, heat seals and gaskets, and hood liners contain asbestos that easily becomes airborne when parts are repaired. Due to regular daily exposure, auto mechanics are at high risk for mesothelioma and other occupational diseases linked to asbestos exposure.

When materials that contain asbestos are damaged or disturbed, a fine dust of tiny asbestos fibers is released into the air. With certain car parts like brakes and clutches that get continual use, wear and damage from abrasion is inevitable. Asbestos fibers get trapped inside the brake and clutch housings, and when parts are taken apart or repaired the asbestos dust and fibers become airborne. Fibers can linger in the air long after a repair job is completed and travel up to 75 feet from the work area. This exposes other workers and even customers in the area to airborne asbestos fibers and related diseases like mesothelioma. Airborne fibers are easily inhaled and ingested, especially if they get on a mechanic’s skin or clothing. Fibers can even be carried home on clothing and other materials, exposing family members to asbestos as well.

Although problems with asbestos exposure are well documented, asbestos is still found in car parts today. For decades, asbestos-containing heat seals, gaskets, valve rings, and packing were used in virtually every system that involved the transport of gases and fluids in automotive vehicles. Prior to the mid-1970s, some automobile exhaust systems contained asbestos gaskets that were installed in the engine exhaust manifolds and along the exhaust pipes. In addition, millions of vehicles have been manufactured over the years with hood liners made from asbestos fibers because they are extremely durable and fire-resistant.

Occupational Exposure

In a recent investigation done by the Seattle Post, research showed high levels of asbestos exposure to auto mechanics who work at brake repair shops and gas stations. Studies showed that 1 in 10 workers are at high risk for developing asbestos-related illnesses, diseases, and cancers. Dust found in repair shops, garages, and gas stations contained between 2.26 percent and 63.8 percent asbestos. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, respirators and protective suits are required for workers if just 1 percent of asbestos dust is found. The investigation was conducted at various repair shops and gas stations around the country. Major areas included Chicago, Denver, Boston, Baltimore, Seattle, and Washington D.C. Significant amounts of asbestos fibers were found in 75 percent of all shops that performed regular brake and clutch repairs.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) advises auto mechanics to assume that all brakes and clutches contain asbestos, because it is impossible to see asbestos fibers with a visual inspection. The EPA has safety regulations in place that help to limit asbestos exposure for people who work in auto repair industries. Regulations are issued for commercial automotive shops that perform five or more weekly brake or clutch repair jobs. Regulations are established to prevent asbestos fibers from becoming airborne. There are also warnings for workers against using the following cleaning techniques on parts:

  • Wiping brake parts with a dry rag
  • Brushing dust off into the air
  • Using compressed air hoses to clean brake drums
  • Using solvent sprays to clean parts
  • Using a water hose to remove dust from brakes and clutches
  • Collecting asbestos fibers with a shop vacuum

Asbestos Exposure Claims and Lawsuits

Many auto manufacturers have to know about the high risk of asbestos exposure for workers for years, but nothing was done about it. Many companies have manufactured and sold auto parts contaminated with asbestos for decades. In the 1980s when the federal government banned asbestos-containing auto parts, many companies shut down. Other companies including Ford Motor Company; General Motors; Daimler Chrysler; Genuine Parts; Advance Auto Parts; Auto Zone; and Pep Boys are currently being sued.

In 2005, the United Auto Workers (UAW) endorsed a plan to create an asbestos fund worth $140 billion. The deal was that companies that were facing occupational illness claims related to asbestos exposure would contribute to the fund, and injury victims would no longer have a right to file lawsuits. It was agreed by the UAW that the highest available monetary award of $1.1 million would be reserved for workers who developed mesothelioma as a result of occupational exposure. Unfortunately, this fund never got off the ground after all three bills written to create the fund died. Since then, hundreds of thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits have been filed by workers who have developed occupational illnesses and diseases, as well as mesothelioma.

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