Asbestos in Brakes Remains a Concern, Senator Murray Reminds Budget Committee Members

Asbestos in Brakes Remains a Concern, Mechanics Under Impression Asbestos was Banned

The EPA "Gold Book" Warned About Asbestos, Contains Safety Precautions

WASHINGTON, DC - May 19, 2006 - The government has not released new guidelines to protect mechanics from asbestos in brakes, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) reminded Senate Budget Committee members recently (Press Release, May 11, 2006). She made her comments to the President's nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), an agency that has delayed the release of safety rules, according to Senator Murray.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the first edition of "Guidance for Preventing Asbestos Disease Among Auto Mechanics," commonly known as the "Gold Book," in 1986. The Gold Book explains that brake linings and clutch facings in older cars often contain asbestos. Servicing asbestos brakes and clutches creates dust that can expose both customers and mechanics to asbestos. Using a compressed air hose to clean asbestos-containing drum brakes releases up to 16 million asbestos fibers in the cubic meter of air around a mechanic's face.

The EPA never published an updated version of the Gold Book, which is now out-of-print. The main agency responsible for health and safety in the workplace, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), prepared an information bulletin in 2004 about asbestos in repair shops, but never released it. A bulletin about asbestos in brakes "is not warranted," an OSHA spokesman commented to the Baltimore Sun. Senator Murray suggested that the OMB also had a hand in delaying the release of this bulletin.

How We Failed to Educate Mechanics About Asbestos Brakes

Automobile manufacturers used asbestos in brakes well into the 1990s, and millions of these older cars and trucks remain on our roads. We continue to import asbestos for use in brakes and other friction products, and some auto parts stores and repair shops still sell and use asbestos-containing brakes.

Many auto mechanics think that asbestos has been banned. This false belief encourages both repair shop employers and employees to cut corners when it comes to asbestos safety procedures. Over a three-month period, investigators from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recovered high levels of asbestos dust from floors, work areas and tool bins in brake repair garages in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Richmond, Seattle, and Washington, DC. Another survey of 30 brake mechanics and auto shop owners in metropolitan Detroit found that 25 did not consider special safety procedures necessary when replacing brakes in older cars. Recent interviews by Baltimore Sun reporter Andrew Schneider found that 11 out of 11 auto mechanics thought that asbestos had been banned.

OSHA's Failure to Enforce Asbestos Regulations at Repair Shops

"Now you've got green mechanics who believe asbestos is banned, brakes still loaded with asbestos being imported in record amount and OSHA, who's responsible for worker safety, saying there's no problem," commented Barry Castleman, a prominent researcher on asbestos-related diseases (Baltimore Sun, May 4, 2006). Although he was referring to OSHA's failure to release the asbestos information bulletin, his comments might well apply to the agency's failure to enforce its own asbestos regulations at repair shops.

In the period from 1973 through 2003, OSHA did not have a routine program of inspections or surprise visits at auto repair shops and rarely cited the businesses for asbestos violations, according to one Congressional report (Oversight Report, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, US House of Representatives, March 2004). Most of the violations that the agency issued were the result of specific complaints. At this time, most auto repair shop employers did not monitor for the presence of asbestos, although workers were likely to be exposed to high asbestos levels.

Asbestos Diseases Take Years to Develop

Asbestos diseases such as asbestosis and the cancer mesothelioma, which affect the lungs, usually take decades to develop. An auto mechanic may be symptom-free for years, and have no warning of the harm that asbestos is doing to his or her body.

If you are an auto mechanic, we suggest that you let your doctor know about your possible exposure to asbestos. That way, your doctor can monitor your lung health over time, perform the appropriate tests and refer you to a specialist, if necessary. We also encourage you to wear protective equipment at the shop, and to take proper precautions when doing brake repair work.