Asbestos is a fiber that is prized for its strength and heat resistance. These two unique qualities make asbestos an excellent component in vehicle brake pads. However, the hazards of asbestos exposure have long been known – inhaling such fibers can cause scarring of the lung tissue and, in some cases, rare lung cancers such as malignant mesothelioma.
Due to these health risks, the use of asbestos in brake pads had been largely phased out in vehicle production by the 1990s. Unfortunately, this does not mean that asbestos has stopped being a hazard to auto mechanics and others.
For one, late-model vehicles often still harbor brake dust that contains asbestos fibers. When this brake dust is released into the air – either by cleaning or repairing the brakes – asbestos inhalation can still occur. Original equipment brakes on vehicles as recent as 1993 were still being sold in the United States with asbestos brakes. Additionally, high-end imports, such as those sold by Land Rover, continue to incorporate asbestos linings into new vehicle models.
For two, many after-market brakes for sale in America still contain asbestos. These non-OEM parts continue to pose risks for auto industry workers and do-it-yourself gearheads.
So why, after decades of research that documents the hazards of asbestos brake dust, are automotive products still being manufactured with the fiber? Beginning in the early 1980s, European countries began banning the sale and production of all asbestos products. Today, 60 countries worldwide have enforced regulations that make the sale of asbestos products illegal.
The United States is not one of these countries.
In 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced a proposal to ban the production of asbestos products in the United States. Under the proposal, a total ban on all domestic and imported asbestos products would be initiated by 1996.
Unfortunately, EPA’s proposed ban was overturned in the courts. This was largely due to heavy lobbying on behalf of brake rebuilders and other asbestos-related businesses.
As such, brake manufacturers are free to fabricate brakes that contain asbestos if they so choose. Furthermore, no law requires such hazardous products to be labeled in any way that might warn mechanics and other individuals about the potential for asbestos exposure. Sadly, this fact exacerbates the possibility for unnecessary inhalation of harmful mesothelioma-causing agents.
To minimize potential for asbestos brake dust exposure, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration recommends either wet cleaning procedures or the use of an enclosed high-efficiency vacuum when working with automotive brakes. Dry procedures such as air hoses are strongly discouraged, as these processes cause brake dust to become airborne.