Mechanics Don’t Wear Masks, Despite Risk of Asbestos Exposure
It’s been well known for decades that brake linings in motor vehicles often contain asbestos, a carcinogen, yet most auto mechanics don’t take proper precautions.
Brake linings are a friction material that helps control the movement of an automobile. When a vehicle’s brakes are engaged, the brake pad presses against a metal disc or drum attached to the wheel, causing the wheel to slow or stop. The forward motion of the wheel is converted into heat, subjecting the brake linings to high temperatures. Asbestos resists heat, which explains why brake linings have customarily been made with asbestos.
The friction involved in the braking process causes asbestos-containing dust to fill the drum. When the brakes are repaired or replaced on cars, trucks, or mechanically operated machinery, all that dust is released into the mechanic shop.
Exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma, a cancer that develops from the protective lining of the body’s internal organs, the mesothelium. Mesothelioma typically presents in the outer lining of the lungs and chest wall. Mesothelioma has a long latency period, meaning it can develop slowly, sometimes taking 30 or 40 years following initial asbestos exposure to appear. The prognosis for those diagnosed with the disease is not good.
Mechanics should change their clothing before going home to avoid exposing their families to asbestos. At work, mechanics should wear protective clothing, and, most importantly, wear a mask.
Federal health and safety officials acknowledge the risks inherent in asbestos brakes. Yet the agencies, apparently relying on the auto industry to police itself, have done nothing in recent years to warn workers or check on workplace safety. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer conducted an investigation in 2000 to test whether mechanicals and government officials were taking proper precautions. Almost everybody they interviewed said they thought — wrongly — that asbestos was taken out of brakes years ago. Since then, not much has changed.
“It’s an intolerable risk,” said Dr. William Nicholson, professor emeritus at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and a leading authority on the hazards of asbestos in brakes.
I recently surveyed four mechanic shops in Monmouth County, New Jersey. None of the mechanics repairing brakes in these shops wore masks, but every auto shop I visited maintained respirator masks on site. I showed Lippy Wright, a mechanic at McLaughlin’s Auto Station on Route 9, a link on my iPhone where mechanics can learn how to properly fit respirators and masks. I asked Lippy why he refuses to wear one. He laughed and said, “I guess I’m a tough guy.”
He wipes the brakes with a wet rag, he told me, to reduce the dust. The fact is, once the rag’s dry, the asbestos particles remain. Another mechanic reasoned that if he did not directly inhale the dust, then he was safe. Turning a blind eye does not help. These guys may end up wearing a respirator if they don’t man up now and start wearing a mask.