The World’s Cheapest, Smallest Car–But Is It Asbestos-Free?

Peak oil, $100-a-barrel oil, and global warming are all signs that the Indian-built Nano, a “micro-car” that may be the smallest, most economical form of private, personal, motorized transportation in the world is a vehicle for which the time has come. Squat, egg-shaped and measuring a mere ten feet long by five feet wide, this remarkable vehicle is hardly beautiful. However, it will carry two passengers and a good-sized duffle bag in reasonable comfort, and its 0.6, two-cylinder engine will allow travel at up to 65 miles per hour, with fuel consumption rates comparable to motorized scooters–at a base price of about 120,000 rupees ($2500 USD). However, officials in the vehicle’s country of origin have concerns about its asbestos content. As regular visitors to are probably aware, many auto parts–particularly brake linings–are made using asbestos.

Although many companies that manufacture brake linings have been abandoning asbestos for alternatives such as ceramic, rock wool and Kevlar since the 1990s, virtually all brake linings used in India contain asbestos. This is of particular concern to Gopal Krishna, who is the head of the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI). Ratan Tata, head of Tata Motors Ltd. has assured the public that his vehicle is “eco-friendly, and meets all safety standards including crash test, offset and side crash.” However, Tata has been more circumspect about the use of asbestos, both in his product and the factory in which it is made. This is what worries Krishna. “Besides consumers, most auto mechanics are just as ignorant about the asbestos threat but for the mechanics, ignorance can mean a painful death. Scientists are well aware of the cancer causing nature of asbestos,” he said. Asbestos is currently banned in the European Union as well as Japan and Australia.

However, asbestos automotive products continue to be manufactured, sold and utilized in India (although old sea-going vessels that arrive for dismantling may be turned away if they contain asbestos). Of particular concern to Krishna and his organization is the unfortunate fact that there is little documentation on working conditions or worker health at the factories where these asbestos products continue to be made.