Q&A: Automobile Mechanics and Asbestos Exposure
Frequently asked questions regarding the risk of asbestos exposure for automobile mechanics.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be mixed with materials to make them stronger and more heat resistant. It was ubiquitous in construction materials and many machine parts until the long-term health risks of asbestos exposure came to light (see Asbestos 101: Everything You Need to Know About the Deadly Mineral to learn more).
Why is it a danger for auto mechanics?
Asbestos can be found in brakes, clutches, hood liners, heat seals, and gaskets. Though the use of asbestos in American manufacturing has fallen, asbestos is still common in old, imported, and after-market car parts.
The greatest risk comes from the dust produced when brakes and clutches wear down. When this dust is inhaled or swallowed, the toxic asbestos fibers remain in the body for years. Beveling parts can also release asbestos dust.
How do I know if a part contains asbestos?
In many cases, you can’t. There is no way of knowing whether a part contains asbestos just by looking at it. Because asbestos exposure doesn't affect a person’s health until years later, you will not notice any symptoms until it is much too late.
If there is any doubt, it is safest to assume that all brakes and clutches contain asbestos.
What safety measures can I take to reduce exposure?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates special enclosures and cleaning equipment for shops that perform more than five brake or clutch jobs per week.
Shops and individuals without this equipment should use the “wet-wipe method” for cleaning potentially hazardous parts: wet the part with a spray bottle, and then wipe the part with a cloth.
Never clean asbestos dust with a vacuum cleaner, compressed air, or a high-pressure water hose. These will release the dust into the air and spread it throughout the shop.
If your clothes become contaminated with asbestos, don't bring them home. Wash them separately from normal laundry, and take a shower before you leave your workplace to prevent secondhand asbestos exposure.
Who can I report asbestos hazards to?
If your employer does not comply with the procedures and regulations in place to protect you and your co-workers from asbestos exposure, you can file a complaint with OSHA by calling 1-800-321-6742 (learn How to Refuse Unsafe Work).
What are the effects of asbestos-related diseases?
Asbestos-related illnesses typically do not present symptoms until 10 to 50 years after exposure. Some of the initial signs are chronic coughing, chest or abdomen pain, shortness of breath, and muscle weakness.
Don't assume that these symptoms are simply caused by the flu or old age. The cancer caused by inhaling asbestos dust, pleural mesothelioma, is usually malignant and terminal. The one-year survival rate after diagnosis is less than 40 percent.
If you think you may have a history of asbestos exposure, talk to your doctor and get screened regularly for asbestos-related illnesses. Treatments are more effective when you catch a disease early.
Can I sue companies that have exposed me to asbestos?
Individuals with illnesses caused by occupational exposure, as well as their surviving family members, can be awarded millions of dollars through lawsuits. Because many manufacturers of asbestos-containing products have gone bankrupt, special trust funds were established to compensate victims of occupational asbestos exposure.
Written by Tim Povtak
Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer and journalist with more than three decades of experience. He spent most of his career at the Orlando Sentinel before moving on to AOL. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. He has served as a guest analyst on both television and radio.