Asbestos was used for decades in the manufacture of automotive brakes and brake linings. It provided excellent heat and friction resistance, along with durability; it had the added benefit of being inexpensive. Even though asbestos has been banned for many commercial uses since the late 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows its use in materials in which the asbestos fibers are tightly bound, including disc brake pads, drum brake linings and brake blocks. Asbestos linings are still used in some high-end luxury cars. Asbestos linings and brakes are widely available in the aftermarket.
When the asbestos fibers remain firmly bound in material, there is no danger. Though if the material is damaged or worn in any way, though, microscopic asbestos fibers can be released into the air. When someone breathes them in, the fibers can become lodged in the lungs and, after many years, cause serious diseases such as asbestosis, or scarring of the lungs, and several forms of lung cancer, including mesothelioma.
Brake linings wear away as they are used, releasing small amounts of dust that becomes trapped in the brake housing. When an automotive service technician opens the housing, the asbestos dust escapes and releases fibers into the air. Using a vacuum or compressed air hose to dust off the parts can spread the fibers even further. Even hitting the brake housing with a hammer can release the dust.
It’s impossible to identify brakes or brake linings that contain asbestos only by sight, so authorities recommend treating all brakes and linings as if they contain asbestos. In some newer cars or on newer replacement parts, the manufacturer or the package label may indicate the presence of asbestos; this is more difficult to research on older cars or in some aftermarket parts.
Government regulations specify the equipment that must be used in auto repair shops that perform more than five brake jobs a year, including wet cleaning, high efficiency vacuums and workshop enclosures. Replacing these parts is not a job for the do-it-yourself mechanic, as there is real danger of contaminating the garage, house and family members with asbestos, as the dust can escape into the air or be carried in on clothing or shoes. If it’s not possible to take the car to a commercial repair shop, then use the cleanup and repair methods recommended by the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to decrease the risk of asbestos contamination.