The automotive industry is a huge industry that involves various parts, manufacturing, repairing, and more. It has long been common, in older vehicles, to use asbestos to handle the heat caused by friction occurring in areas where parts touch each other. When the asbestos industry became regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s, the use of asbestos went into decline. However, it is now known that the automotive industry was slow to follow suit, particularly in terms of their brake pads.

Brake Pads Can Contain Asbestos

Brake pads are used to slow down a vehicle, which means they experience a lot of friction. Unsurprisingly, it was very common for manufacturers to use asbestos in brake pads. They weren’t the only ones, in fact. Railroad brakes, and the brakes in all types of other heavy machinery, including cranes, all used asbestos.

It is easy to understand why this was done. When a heavy vehicle is stopped, the metal temperatures, if not protected, could exceed 2,500 degrees F. This would lead to a significant fire hazard. We see this today, now that asbestos isn’t used in brake pads anymore, on trucks that go on a steep downgrade, when their brakes start to smoke. That being said, when it became known to the public that asbestos was dangerous in 1977, the automotive industry should have looked for new solutions but for some reason they weren’t able to find a suitable substitute.

To this day, vehicle manufacturers and vehicle part manufacturers will claim that they no longer use asbestos in any of their friction products. This is most likely true for European and domestic manufacturers. However, many foreign manufacturers do not have to stick to the same rules. There is no regulatory or economic pressure on them to stop using asbestos, and they do not break any laws either. Most worrisome is that there are even no international laws that state these products must be labeled as containing asbestos. To make matters even worse, unregulated foreign products are often much cheaper, tempting unwitting users to buy them.

A study in Seattle was conducted in 2000 by government-certified laboratories and it was found that there were high levels of asbestos in 21 of 31 brake-repair shops studied. As a result of this study, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released guidelines to ensure automotive repair personnel know what precautions to take to protect themselves while they work with brake components. These include the use of respirators, although it has been found that few mechanics actually use them. The usual complaint was that they are cumbersome and ugly.

Brake Pads that Contain Asbestos

Since the new asbestos regulations came into force, various scientists have worked together to identify the different products that actually contain asbestos. They found that the following products, in the following time frame, did contain the deadly mineral:

• Allied Signal friction kind disc brake pads, manufactured between 1979 and 1987
• Bendix disc brake pads, manufactured between 1963 and 1988
• Ferodo brake pads, manufactured between 1923 and 1998

Is Asbestos in Brake Pads Dangerous?

It is a known fact that asbestos is a very dangerous natural product. Exposure can lead to the development of a variety of illnesses, including asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. It is clear from the research that those who worked closely with brake pads, be that professionally or as a hobby, will have been at risk of asbestos exposure, and that this is particularly true for those who work in repair shops, due to the dust collected in the shop floor.

The American Journal of Industrial Medicine has pulled together all the research that has been completed on asbestos exposure in those who worked with brake pads in particular, and they found a number of very interesting reports, including:

• A 1948 report from the National Safety Council, in which it was said that using asbestos in brakes could be dangerous
• A 1970 report that noted increased incidence of mesothelioma in brake mechanics
• A 1984 report that observed high incidences of mesothelioma in the wives of brake mechanics
• A 1986 report by the Environmental Protection Agency that noted increased occurrence of mesothelioma in the children of brake mechanics
• A range of individual cases of mesothelioma sufferers who were only exposed to asbestos as brake mechanics
• A study of 18 dogs with mesothelioma, 12 of which had owners with asbestos exposure

Other studies have been less clear, however. They include one where insufficient participants took part in the study, and another where too many patients died before the end of the study. Various studies concluded that it was difficult to find a correlation because it was often hard to discover the occupational history of patients, particularly if they died. However, even in these cases, there was sufficient evidence to point to a link between occupational asbestos exposure in brake mechanics and mesothelioma.

The conclusion of the report in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine was that there have been a minimum of 165 cases of mesothelioma in those who worked with friction products like brake pads. Additionally, they noted that there were further cases reported by the government that had the same findings, but that were not individually considered in their specific study. These numbers are so high that it they cannot be attributed solely to chance or to ambient air exposure, leading to the conclusion that brake pad mechanics are at increased risk of developing mesothelioma.

As a result of experimental studies, exposure studies, findings from epidemiological studies, and case reports, several facts became apparent:

• When asbestos is contained in brake pads, asbestos fibers are released both during use and manipulation of the breaks, and the concentrations of fibers that are released are high enough to cause asbestos-related illnesses.
• Brakes and brake residue have been found to contain short asbestos fibers, which are less than 5 mm in length. These have been proven to be able to cause disease in many individual studies.
• Asbestos exposure has been reduced due to EPA and OSHA regulations, but has not been removed completely.
• It is possible for those who work in these industries to cause secondary exposure to those they come into contact with if they do not follow the necessary cleanup and work safety practices.

The story does not even end there. The final difficulty is that asbestos-related illnesses have a very long latency period, sometimes as long as 50 or even 60 years. Since brake pads on older vehicles still contain asbestos, and since there is some query as to whether asbestos truly has been removed even from newer models, it is possible that new cases will continue to appear for many more decades to come.