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Asbestos in Automobiles and its Impact on America’s Mechanics and Auto Service Workers

Though most asbestos-containing products and all “new uses” of asbestos have been banned in the U.S., it is still legal to import, process, and distribute certain asbestos-containing automotive parts. These include:

  • Automatic transmission components
  • Clutch facings
  • Friction materials
  • Disc brake pads
  • Drum brake linings
  • Brake blocks

What does this mean for the nearly 740,000 mechanics and automotive service technicians working in the U.S. today? Because overall evidence suggests that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, auto mechanics are at risk of developing asbestos-related conditions such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. This especially true of mechanics and technicians who were exposed in the past, when government regulations on asbestos did not exist and poor work practices were common.

When exposure occurs, it is often to a type of asbestos known as chrysotile asbestos. This is the most common type of asbestos used in parts such as brakes and clutches. Also called “white asbestos,” chrysotile accounts for 95% of asbestos use in the U.S. It belongs to one of the two major groups of asbestos called “serpentine asbestos” and it is characterized by long, curly fibers that can be woven.

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of mesothelioma cancer. When asbestos-containing products are disturbed during breaking, cutting, drilling, abrading, grinding, and sanding, tiny asbestos fibers may be released into the air. Mechanics and auto service workers may end up breathing in these fibers daily, while installing and repairing asbestos-containing parts. The fibers could become trapped in the lungs, and over time, they can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation. This may damage cells’ DNA and cause changes that result in uncontrolled cell growth. This can lead to mesothelioma—a disease that has no cure.

Symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Chest pain under the rib cage
  • Painful coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unusual lumps of tissue under the skin on the chest
  • Unexplained weight loss

In rare cases, if asbestos fibers are swallowed they can reach the abdominal lining where they can cause peritoneal mesothelioma. Symptoms of the disease include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Lumps of tissue in the abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss

Per the National Cancer Institute (NCI), other risks of asbestos exposure in the workplace include:

  • An elevated risk of asbestosis (an incurable inflammatory condition affecting the lungs that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and permanent lung damage)
  • Nonmalignant lung and pleural disorders, including pleural plaques (changes in the membranes surrounding the lung)
  • Pleural thickening (scarring causes the pleura—the layers of tissue lining the lungs and the wall of the chest cavity—to thicken)
  • Benign pleural effusions (abnormal collections of fluid between pleura)

“Although pleural plaques are not precursors to lung cancer,” says the NCI, “evidence suggests that people with pleural disease caused by exposure to asbestos may be at increased risk for lung cancer.”    

While asbestos-containing auto parts are still legal in the U.S., unsafe work practices are not.

Per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “by law, most professional automotive shops must follow the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) regulations at 29 CFR 1910.1001 and specifically paragraph (f)(3) and Appendix F. These are mandatory measures that employers must implement for automotive brake and clutch inspection, disassembly, repair, and assembly operations. State and local governments with employees who perform brake and clutch work in states without OSHA-approved state plans must follow the identical regulations found under the EPA Asbestos Worker Protection Rule.”

Unfortunately, “home mechanics” are not required to follow the OSHA work practices (or the identical requirements under the EPA Asbestos Worker Protection Rule). However, “by using these practices home mechanics can minimize potential exposure to asbestos if it is present and thereby reduce their risk of developing any asbestos-related diseases.”