Car Mechanics Still Face Asbestos Exposure Risks

Jul 17, 2019 11:06 AM EDT | Hannah Smith

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Auto mechanics are still facing risks of asbestos exposure on a regular basis when working on brakes, heat seals and clutches. These components contain asbestos that breaks down over time and can become airborne as these parts start to wear down.

A recent investigation from the Seattle Post found that 1 in 10 workers was at a high risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses, cancers, and diseases. According to the report, dust found in repair shops and garages contained 2.26%-63.8% asbestos. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations require workers to wear protective suits and respirators if just 1% of asbestos dust is found. 

The investigation looked at repair shops in major metro areas. High amounts of asbestos fibers were found in 75% of shops that performed clutch and brake repairs regularly.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that auto mechanics assume that all clutches and brakes contain asbestos, as it is impossible to determine whether these parts contain the substance with just a visual inspection. 

Microscopic asbestos fibers make their way into the air when asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed. Clutch and brake functions cause continual abrasion, which releases the imbedded asbestos fibers. Many of those fibers become trapped inside of the clutch space or the brake housing. These fibers are released when mechanics (or individuals) perform repair work or replace these parts.

Asbestos fibers can also make their way into the air when vacuums are used to clean the work area during and after the job. These fibers can linger in the air long after the work is done, and they can spread 75 feet from the area where the work was performed. 

These airborne fibers are easily inhaled and can be ingested. If asbestos fibers stick to the mechanic's clothing, they can bring them home and expose their families to asbestos. 

When inhaled, asbestos fibers can become lodged in the lungs, where they remain indefinitely. Over time, those fibers can lead to disease, illness and even cancer. 

Scientific studies conducted between 2002 and 2004 concluded that brake dust did not cause mesothelioma, a type of rare and aggressive cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

But researcher Murray Finkelstein re-analyzed the data on the lung content of tremolite and chrysotile asbestos in brake mechanics. Finklestein found that fiber concentrations were higher among brake workers compared to a control group. The lung tissue samples contained a higher concentration of tremolite fibers compared to chrysotile. 

Finkelstein concluded that brake mechanics had significant amounts of asbestos fibers in their lung tissues, caused by occupational exposure. The high concentration of fibers puts mechanics at a higher risk of asbestos-related cancers and diseases.

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