Garage workers and mechanics deal with brakes and clutches on a daily basis. These and any other friction areas in equipment frequently, even to this day, have asbestos pads or liners. When the equipment is replaced or serviced, millions of asbestos fibers can be released into the air (cleaning drum brakes with compressed air can release 16 million fibers in the one cubic meter of air around the garage worker’s face), and since so much of the work done in a garage is done by a mechanic or worker who is under the vehicle being serviced, those fibers can fall directly into the garage worker’s face. Almost any work done on brakes or clutches will release fibers in large enough numbers to potentially cause diseases like asbestosis or mesothelioma.
Asbestos fibers are so small that they can’t be seen. If a garage worker does see dust when working brakes or clutch facings, he’s actually seeing thousands of the fibers clumped together. The asbestos fibers can stick to the hair and clothing of the garage workers who often unknowingly expose their families when the asbestos dust comes off in their cars, homes and during the laundering of their clothes. Since most household vacuums don’t have fine enough filters to trap asbestos dust, vacuuming actually makes the exposure worse, since the dust becomes airborne where anyone in the household can inhale it.
Asbestos is a carcinogen. When it enters the body it gets imbedded in the lungs or in the membranes that surround the lungs. Initially the asbestos causes irritation in the tissue. Over a period of time the irritation can turn to scarring that creates its own health and breathing problems. As with all carcinogens every time a person is exposed to the carcinogen there is some risk that cancer will result. Higher exposures, or more frequent exposures, make the risk of asbestos cancer even greater. Furthermore, since asbestos is still legal in the United States, OSHA has concluded that regardless of the regulations put into place, and regardless of how carefully those regulations are followed, there will be additional cases of malignant mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure due to work with friction materials like those found in brake pads.
Pleural mesothelioma, the most common form of the disease, is a rare cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the chest, although there are other types of mesothelioma. Like many asbestos-related diseases, mesothelioma has an extremely long latency period. It usually does not manifest until 20, 30 or more years after the asbestos exposure. The first symptom of mesothelioma is shortness of breath during exercise. This is such a nonspecific complaint that few people pay it any attention. As the cancer progresses the symptoms of mesothelioma become more noticeable: difficulty catching one’s breath even while at rest and increasingly severe chest pain.
When mesothelioma is caught early, doctors can try to remove the tumor and its surrounding tissue to prevent the cancer from spreading. If the cancer has already metastasized, doctors usually try a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery to try to slow the growth of the tumor, and to treat the symptoms of mesothelioma. There is no cure, however, and few people live more than two years after being diagnosed with the disease.
Since there is such a long latency period, and since the consequence of not catching mesothelioma early is deadly, anyone who has been employed as a garage worker or brake mechanic, and anyone who has lived with or been in frequent close contact with a garage worker’s work clothes or work car, should seek yearly medical evaluations to detect early stage mesothelioma before it has a chance to fully develop.