10 Min Read
Last Updated: 10/02/2023
Fact Checked

How Automobile Asbestos Exposure Happens

Asbestos has been used in a wide variety of auto parts. Examples include brakes, clutches, hood liners, gaskets, heat shields and many other products.

Historically, drum and disc brakes were manufactured with 35% to 60% asbestos. Today, it remains legal in the U.S. to sell asbestos-containing auto parts, and many brake and clutch parts continue to contain up to 35% asbestos.

Contaminated parts have been used on every type of vehicle. This includes cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, trains and military vehicles. Asbestos brakes were also used in elevators and other types of transportation machinery.

Workers were exposed in auto assembly plants, repair shops and supply stores. Trains, bus stations, truck stops and auto part manufacturing plants exposed workers. Even toll road collectors are at an increased risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. That’s because of repeated exposure to asbestos brake dust.

A 2018 study estimates that 730,000 documented workers in the U.S. are at risk of asbestos exposure from brake repairs alone. It also estimated that millions of do-it-yourself mechanics are also at risk of asbestos exposure.

Hobbyists working on older cars are especially at risk because older cars are more likely to contain asbestos parts than newer cars. Both professionals and do-it-yourselfers are at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma.

Auto mechanic handling an asbestos brake pad
People have often been exposed to asbestos dust while servicing automobile brakes.

Products Containing Asbestos

A wide variety of asbestos-containing products have been used in automotive transportation, including:

  • Brakes: Both the housing and linings of brakes, collectively called brake shoes, have contained asbestos.
  • Clutches: Clutch linings continue to be made with asbestos to control heat produced by friction.
  • Sheets and Hood Liner Sheets: Asbestos sheets were applied around engines and as hood liners to control temperature.
  • Gaskets, Packing, Valves and Heat Seals: Asbestos gaskets, packing, ring valves and heat seals have been used throughout vehicles to regulate temperature.
  • Electrical Insulation: Asbestos-containing insulation, sometimes called wire loom, was used around electrical parts to prevent overheating.
  • Spark Plugs: Some spark plugs contained asbestos in the past.
  • Heat Shields: Asbestos-containing heat shields were used around mufflers to prevent fire.
  • Mufflers and Muffler Repair Compound: Mufflers and the compound used to repair them contained asbestos.
  • Air Conditioning Housing: The housing around automobile air conditioning units contained as much as 55% asbestos.
  • Undercoating: The undercoating of automobile paint often contained asbestos fibers as a filler and strengthener.
  • Decal Stripes: Decorative decal stripes have been known to contain asbestos.
  • Soundproofing: Asbestos soundproofing material was used inside body panels to reduce noise inside the vehicle.
  • Adhesive: Asbestos cement was often mixed with other materials to make a body panel adhesive.
  • Body Putty: Asbestos was used in auto body filler compound.
  • Insulation: Various types of asbestos insulation were used in cars, including floor and firewall insulation. Asbestos insulation on trains was found around boilers and pipes.
  • Woven Asbestos Backing: Some vehicles contained a woven asbestos backing underneath the floor carpeting.
Auto mechanic handling a spark plug
Asbestos was used in automobile parts because it is resistant to heat and corrosion.

In addition to insulation, asbestos gaskets were widely used in automobiles. Different types of gaskets used in vehicles include rope and sheet gaskets. They were used on cylinder heads, oil pans, manifolds and pumps. Two name-brand asbestos gaskets used in engines include Felbestos and Shimbestos.

At-Risk Automotive Occupations

The following automotive occupations put workers at risk of asbestos exposure:

Auto mechanic repairing a glass window
Old asbestos-containing adhesives become a hazard if removed improperly.

Do-it-yourselfers who enjoy working on cars are at high risk of asbestos exposure. They often don’t have proper protective equipment and may be unaware of protocols to reduce exposure.

Companies Connected to Automobile Asbestos Exposure

Companies manufactured asbestos products for automotive transportation since the early 1900s. Manufacturers of asbestos-containing transportation products include:

  • Abex Corporation made brake linings, gaskets and packing for cars and trains from 1926 to 1987.
  • Anchor Packing Company made brake linings from 1908 to 1984.
  • Bendix Corporation made brake linings from 1939 to 1988.
  • Borg-Warner Corporation made brake and clutch linings from 1928 through the 1980s.
  • Chrysler Corporation made brake and clutch linings from 1925 through the 1970s. Assembly plant workers were also exposed while installing these products on the assembly line.
  • CSX Transportation used asbestos products, including brakes and insulation, on trains.
  • Dana Corporation made brake linings, gaskets and valve covers from 1945 to 1969.
  • Fel-Pro made asbestos gaskets under the brand names Felbestos and Shimbestos. Federal-Mogul acquired Fel-Pro in 1998, but had to file for bankruptcy by 2001 under the weight of 33,625 asbestos lawsuits related to Fel-Pro’s asbestos gaskets.
  • Ford Motor Company made brake and clutch linings from 1909 through the 1980s. Workers in assembly plants were also exposed to these products.
  • General Motors Corporation made brake and clutch linings, disc brakes, drum brakes and locomotive brake shoes from 1920 to 1985.
  • Griscom-Russell Company, now known as Viad Corporation, made asbestos-containing engine valves for locomotives.
  • John Crane made gaskets and packing, including hydraulic, ring and rope packing.
  • Railroad Friction Products Corporation made brakes for trains.
  • Raybestos-Manhattan made brake linings and gaskets for cars, trucks and trains.
  • Uniroyal made brakes, disc brakes, packing, gaskets and asbestos cloth used in automobiles.
  • Wagner Electric Corporation made brake and clutch linings.
Auto mechanic holding a spark plug
Safety experts recommend using disposable gloves and coveralls when working with asbestos-containing products.

Some companies made parts such as brake linings, insulation and gaskets with asbestos until the late 1980s. Some imported auto parts currently contain asbestos. 

Automotive Workers and Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma has been documented in auto mechanics, their wives and children. Individual case reports have described cases of mesothelioma among auto mechanics. Population studies have examined the collective risk among professional auto mechanics.

For example:

  • A 2018 study found an increased incidence of mesothelioma among auto mechanics. It found more than 400 cases of mesothelioma in auto mechanics reported in the literature.
  • A 2004 study found 90,000 short and long chrysotile asbestos fibers in each nanogram of brake dust. For every gram of brake dust, this translates into 90 trillion short asbestos fibers and 300 billion long asbestos fibers.
  • A 2001 study reported a 10-fold excess of mesothelioma cases among auto mechanics.
  • A 2000 study found high levels of asbestos exposure occurring in gas stations and brake repair shops in the District of Columbia and six states. Dust samples collected revealed concentrations of asbestos ranging from 2.26% to 63.8%.
  • A 1998 study reported 82% of auto mechanics are frequently exposed to asbestos. The study found an increased risk of mesothelioma in the lungs among auto mechanics. It confirmed a dose-response relationship between asbestos exposure and the cancer.
  • A 1985 exposure study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that brake and clutch repair work resulted in asbestos exposure levels far exceeding the ambient air levels set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Secondary asbestos exposure happens when workers bring fibers home. This type of exposure can cause mesothelioma in spouses and children.

Asbestos Regulations for the Automotive Industry

Two government agencies that set safety regulations for professional auto workers are the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

This includes automotive brake and clutch inspection, disassembly, repair and assembly operations. These safety measures describe regulations of work practices to follow. Educating workers on asbestos risks, personal hygiene protocols and more.

They also require the use of one of the following cleaning methods:

  • Negative-Pressure Enclosure/HEPA Vacuum System Method: The best method involves the use of a negative-pressure enclosed HEPA vacuum system, which uses a special box with clear plastic walls around the brake or clutch to contain asbestos fibers.
  • Low Pressure/Wet Cleaning Method: The next-best method involves specially designed low-pressure spray equipment to wet brakes and clutches. The runoff is then collected in a special basin to reduce asbestos dust from circulating in the work area.
  • Wet Wipe Method: This method involves using a spray bottle to deliver a fine mist of water at low pressure to wet brakes and clutches, which can then be wiped clean with a cloth.

Automotive workers in states without state plans approved by the administration must follow the regulations set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Asbestos Worker Protection Rule.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued best practices for brake and clutch repair workers. These exist on top of regulations set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Best practices for professionals include:

  • Do Not Blow Dust: Do not use compressed air to clean brakes and clutches. Do not use a dry rag, brush (wet or dry) or a garden hose.
  • Use an Enclosed System: Do not use a traditional wet/dry vacuum. You must use a wet/dry vacuum equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  • Use the Low-Pressure Wet Method: If you don’t have the equipment for an enclosed system, use the low-pressure wet method.
  • Use the Wet Wipe Method: Auto workers who are employed in a shop that performs no more than five brake or clutch jobs per week are allowed to use the wet wipe method.

Recommendations for Home Mechanics

Do-it-yourself mechanics are not required by law to follow these safety measures at home. The agency strongly recommends that professionals handle all brake and clutch repair work.

Those who insist on doing this work themselves are strongly encouraged to take additional safety measures.

Best practices for home mechanics include:

  • Don’t Expose Your Family: Make sure to not track any asbestos dust into your home on your shoes, work clothes, skin and hair. This involves creating a decontamination unit outside your home to use after your work is done. It is best to dispose of contaminated clothes with the rest of the job’s asbestos-contaminated waste at a government-designated landfill.
  • Get the Right Parts: Make sure to buy pre-ground, ready-to-install parts. Grinding down asbestos-containing parts makes them friable and extremely dangerous.
  • Use the Right Tools: Use machinery equipped with a HEPA filter and an exhaust dust collection system.
  • Minimize Exposure: Don’t let anyone else into the work area. Don’t allow food or drinks into the work area, which could lead to ingestion of asbestos fibers.
  • Dispose of Waste Properly: All asbestos waste, including old auto parts and rags used during the job, must be wetted before being double bagged in 6-millimeter plastic bags. The bags must be enclosed in a plastic, leak-tight container with a lid and properly labeled as asbestos waste. This waste must be disposed of at special landfills designated to receive asbestos waste.

The extensive safety measures involved in DIY automotive work makes it costly. Proper disposal is also important to prevent exposure among those who work in landfills.

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