How Much Does Brake Dust Contribute to Health Issues?

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People care more and more about what goes into the products they use. Take, for example, the brake pads.

Even though they play an essential role in the car’s health, as well as the driver and passenger’s safety, brake pads are those car components that we, generally, forget about. We’re used to thinking about the danger associated with the brakes in our cars only when these fail.

However, we’re now getting more and more aware that brakes can also be dangerous due to the brake dust that gets released through the friction between the cast-iron disc and the brake pads when braking. This brake dust can cause serious respiratory problems.

Recently Uncovered Risks of Disease

Brake pads are essential safety devices for controlling moving vehicles because they absorb heat and energy during braking. However, that’s also why they take a lot of wear.

Although they can be crafted out of different materials – that each has drawbacks to consider – information from California and recent studies determined that particles from vehicle brake pads and tires contribute greatly to pollution.

The studies say that the small bits that shed from the brakes are harmful. Firstly, the ingredients in the brake pads can be harmful to human health because they contain heavy metals like copper, mercury, cadmium, lead and even asbestos. Secondly, some of the particles from brakes are smaller than a quarter of an inch and they’re classified as microplastics, also dangerous to our health.

Exposure to Asbestos in Brake Dust

Recent developments regarding brake dust are a reminder that the link between brake pads and serious health concerns is not new.

Although in the US auto manufacturers ceased the installation of asbestos-containing brake parts more than a decade ago, in the past, brake pads were commonly made with asbestos as the friction material.

A car’s stopping ability is enabled by the brake pads. Pressed into the brake rotor, a brake pad’s friction surface halts the momentum and keeps everyone safe. However, the friction created as the parts rub together can lead to extremely dangerous overheating and failed brakes. Asbestos was considered to be the perfect material, highly effective at preventing this overheating in brake pads and linings.

The grave risks from exposure to the fibrous mineral have been long known and safer substitutes are currently available. The properties that make asbestos a useful fiber also make it hazardous. Asbestos fibers are extremely small and when they’re exposed they can drift in the air and be inhaled. Due to their small size, they lodge deep in the lungs where they become a source of constant irritation due to their needle-like presence.

To make matters worse, the human body cannot rid itself of inhaled asbestos fibers. So over time, exposure to asbestos dust may result in lung disease, lung cancer or mesothelioma.

“In the automotive industry, the effect of asbestos exposure has been seen on workers in brake, clutch or gasket manufacturing plants” said Gregory A. Cade, says Gregory A. Cade, principal attorney at the law firm Environmental Litigation Group.

But as the brake pad and linings got used and worn, asbestos fibers got released into the air as dust. Some of them could cling to brake parts. Because of this dust, exposure danger also existed for the mechanics who changed brake pads.

Currently, some older and classic vehicles could still have brake pads that contain lethal amounts of asbestos fibers, still putting mechanics at risk of asbestos-related disease. The removal of an existing component that is suspected of containing asbestos and its replacement with one which is asbestos-free should be performed with caution.

It’s difficult for mechanics to tell if a brake or clutch part has asbestos by merely looking at them, EPA informs. Especially for older cars, it’s difficult to determine if the parts contain asbestos. When the brakes are worn, it cannot be easily distinguished if they contain asbestos or not. Gregory A. Cade says “the dangers are higher for home mechanics who likely lack any training and equipment to deal with asbestos.” Therefore, it’s a good idea to treat every vehicle as if it could have brake pads that contain asbestos.

Asbestos brakes are the reason why blowing out undercarriages, wheel wells and rims with an air hose is forbidden in shops and commercial garages. The only thing this cleaning technique succeeds in doing is blowing asbestos fibers into the air and exposing everyone in the shop or garage to their dangers.

Brake dust fibers can also pose a possible hazard to household members because they can cling to work clothes. That’s why, to prevent the spread of fibers to other clothing, work clothes covered with brake dust should be washed separately from any other laundry.

Background on Manufacturers of Asbestos Brake Pads

Manufacturers of brake pads, such as Raybestos, used asbestos in almost all of their friction products. In the 1930s, Raybestos was a member of the Friction Materials Standards Institute and the Asbestos Textile Institute, groups that commissioned studies and discussed the risks posed by asbestos.

Unfortunately, even when manufacturers knew that asbestos could cause harm, company leaders continued to use the material in their friction materials production. Raybestos is one of the manufacturers that used asbestos in its brake pads for decades. As a result, Raybestos, and many other companies, had to face asbestos liabilities related to their historic manufacturing activities.

Although exposure to asbestos was discovered to be toxic, a plan to phase out asbestos in brakes due to health concerns for those that perform brake-related installations and automotive repair or maintenance was enacted in the 1970s. The complete phasing out of asbestos took place as late as the 1990s largely because of campaigns by auto assembly workers. The manufacturers were among those pressing for a grace period to allow time to find alternatives to asbestos.

The consequences of asbestos use continued to surface for decades in the form of cancers, such as mesothelioma, and lung diseases, such as asbestosis, that are linked to a patient’s asbestos history.


About the author

Gregory A. Cade is the founder and principal attorney of Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. He is a committed lawyer specialized in Occupational and Environmental Law who has dedicated over 20 years to helping victims of exposure to asbestos and other known toxins.

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