Restoring classic cars is a great way to rejuvenate and preserve a piece of automotive history. Whether you’re a professional restoration technician or a do-it-yourselfer, the satisfaction that comes with each project is what keeps you going. Although it’s easy to look past the potential hazards that come with working on old cars, it’s important to consider them and keep yourself safe when necessary.
There are many dangers when working on vehicles that most professionals and at-home mechanics would consider common knowledge. Using jack stands and making sure the battery is disconnected before working on electrical components are standard precautions. However, we often neglect to consider the unseen hazards like microscopic fibers that lurk in brake drums, tucked away in hood liners, or in the depths of the transmission housing. It’s easy to overlook these potential threats, but too often, these risks can cause the most harm.
Asbestos in Cars
The use of asbestos as an additive in friction parts for automobiles dates back to the 1920s, but became increasingly popular during the mid-20th century, until its partial ban in the 1980s. Although classic cars pose the most serious risk of asbestos exposure to restorers due to their popularity, the potential for vehicles from the ’70s and even early ’80s to contain asbestos shouldn’t be overlooked. Without a total ban, even newer brake and clutch components are not completely free of scrutiny, although the concern is significantly diminished.
As recently as July 2006, the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) released an advisory bulletin on the dangers of asbestos exposure while performing brake and clutch work. Although this statement from OSHA is not a new regulation or law, it is “intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.” Within the bulletin, OSHA recommends that any brake or clutch work be done at a professional repair shop where proper equipment and procedures are available, should any parts contain asbestos.
Professionals can employ one of two methods to significantly reduce the risk of asbestos becoming airborne when performing brake or clutch service.
- The first is referred to as a negative pressure enclosure, which utilizes a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) vacuum to encapsulate the brake or clutch housing while performing service. By using a see-through enclosure with sleeves that still allow work to be performed, the chance of asbestos dust being inhaled by the technician is greatly reduced.
- The second technique is the low pressure or wet cleaning method. This requires technicians to carefully add water to the brake or clutch housing to prevent asbestos from becoming airborne and safely remove any toxin-containing dust in a catch basin below.
Don’t Bring Asbestos Home
Many do-it-yourselfers may scoff at OSHA’s prompt to have brakes done professionally, but one may think differently knowing how easily microscopic asbestos fibers can be transferred into the home. Asbestos fibers could be carried in on clothing where family members could readily inhale or ingest airborne fibers, leaving them at risk for serious illness like mesothelioma, asbestosis, and even lung cancer later in life.
Although do-it-yourselfers may not be exposed to the same volume of asbestos as a technician, the possibility is still present. Sadly, this reality became all too true for factory workers at automotive parts manufacturers like Borg-Warner who were exposed to asbestos. Borg-Warner Automotive, Inc., was formed in the early 20th century and chiefly manufactured brake parts and transmissions. Their use of asbestos dates back to the 1920s but it was used heavily during the 1960s. Asbestos was a cheap additive for brake and clutch linings, while boasting incomparable heat and wear resistance.
Assembly line workers at companies like Borg-Warner, General Motors Co., and others during the mid-20th century were exposed to levels of asbestos that under today’s regulations would be considered unconscionable. These workers often brought home asbestos on their clothing, exposing their spouses and children to the dangerous toxin. Many family members of automotive factory workers fell victim to asbestos related diseases.
Mark Buttitta was one of those victims. Although Mark worked at a GM warehouse on summer breaks from college, and was likely exposed to asbestos at that time, it’s more likely his initial exposure was marked much earlier, as his father worked at GM during the peak of asbestos use. Buttitta succumbed to mesothelioma in 2002. Thankfully, his wife was able to file a suit within the statute of limitations and was compensated for his untimely death. With a latency period of several decades, Buttitta’s passing at just 50 years old makes the dangers of bringing asbestos into the home undoubtedly clear.
Asbestos in car parts is easy to overlook – especially from behind the wheel of a classic car. No do-it-yourselfer wants to pay for a brake job, one of the simplest parts of maintenance. However, if you suspect that the brake linings or clutch components contain asbestos, it’s never worth the risk. Having a professional perform this service will let you sleep with the peace-of-mind that you and your family are safe.