Written By: Devin Golden

Asbestos Exposure Among Automobile Mechanics

Automobile brake linings and gaskets were built with asbestos during the 20th century to protect vehicle components from overheating and fire damage. Automobile mechanics or people doing at-home work on their old vehicles can be exposed to this legacy asbestos.


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Important Facts About Asbestos ExposureAmong Automobile Mechanics

  • Chrysotile asbestos is the type of asbestos used most often in automobiles. Asbestos prevents brakes and gaskets from overheating.
  • The braking process causes asbestos dust to build up in the wheel well. When automobile mechanics work on vehicles, this dust is the primary risk of exposure.
  • At-home automobile mechanic work is another way people are exposed to asbestos. Professional mechanics are more likely to wear protective gear, whereas do-it-yourself projects in garages and driveways are not likely to include precautionary measures.

Explaining the Danger of Asbestos

Asbestos is an insulant, meaning it can prevent fires and protect nearby components from damage. Asbestos is also strong, which is why it’s used to make automobile brakes.

The only cause of the rare cancer mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. This cancer affects around 2,500 people in the U.S. each year. Mesothelioma forms in the linings of the lungs and abdominal cavity. It’s most often linked to occupational asbestos exposure, and automobile mechanics are near the top of the list due to the amounts of asbestos used in automobiles.

Chrysotile Asbestos in Automobiles

Chrysotile asbestos is one of two primary types of the mineral; the other being amphibole. The American Cancer Society calls chrysotile asbestos “white asbestos” and is the most common type used in industrial applications.

Automobile brakes and clutches often include chrysotile asbestos, which means anyone who repairs or installs these parts could be at risk of exposure. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it’s nearly impossible to identify asbestos dust on brakes or clutch components by merely looking at them. The EPA also says mechanics should assume every car includes asbestos as a safe practice.

According to University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, this type of asbestos has been prevalent in automobile brakes since the 1940s. In a 2018 article posted on the OMICS International website, authors Marty Kanarek and Henry Anderson explained the relationship between asbestos and automobile work.

Their research shows how the automobile industry heavily relied on asbestos and put workers in harm’s way.

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How Asbestos Was Used in Automobiles

Asbestos was widely used in the manufacturing of automobiles. The mineral can be found throughout various components of vehicles but primarily in brakes.

According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison experts, an automobile’s braking process causes dust to build up in the wheel well. This dust is comprised of a substance known as forsterite. It’s a non-fibrous magnesium silicate “created by the transformation of chrysotile asbestos during the heat and pressure of braking.”

Asbestos exposure can occur when mechanics install new brakes or replace old ones. Another standard exposure method is at-home automobile repair.

Asbestos Exposure Due to Brake Removal

When automobile repair workers remove brakes, they will first blow out the forsterite dust created from the heat and pressure of applying the brakes when driving. However, not all chrysotile asbestos transforms into forsterite. 

The University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) cites a report from General Motors Corporation, which found 90,000 unaltered chrysotile asbestos fibers in a single nanogram of brake dust.

When the blowout process occurs, loose chrysotile asbestos fibers enter the air. This does not only affect the person blowing out the toxic dust. It can expose anyone in close proximity to asbestos. The article from UWM also cites a study reporting “measurable concentrations of asbestos” up to 75 feet from the location of the blowout.

Asbestos Exposure Due to Brake Installation

Installing new asbestos-containing brakes is another risk for asbestos exposure. This process usually involves sanding or grinding the brakes to ensure a good fit.

However, manipulating the new brakes does not transform the chrysotile asbestos into forsterite. Instead, the sanding process disturbs the asbestos and sends “free-floating chrysotile fibers into the worker’s environment.” Once again, loose chrysotile asbestos fibers can then enter the worker’s body and cause cancer to form.

The International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI) cited a 2000 study funded by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. The researchers “discovered high levels of asbestos in 21 of 31 brake-repair shops” spanning six states throughout the country.

“The same study also found that most of the workers were under the impression that asbestos was banned by the EPA a long time ago,” the ICDRI article states.

Unfortunately, the EPA has not implemented a complete ban on asbestos. In fact, many environmental groups argue that the EPA isn’t doing enough to restrict commercial use of the mineral.

Asbestos Exposure Due to At-Home Automobile Repair

Some people enjoy working on their automobiles at home and view it as a way to save money. However, much of the general public didn’t know asbestos was dangerous until the end of the 20th century. Many Americans also didn’t know how prevalent asbestos was in general and especially in automobiles.

The ICDRI says “non-professional home auto mechanics that repair or replace their own brakes or clutches” are at risk of exposure. Their families are also in danger “since no protective measures are likely taken to prevent fibers from entering the home.”

Because at-home mechanics aren’t professionals, they likely do not have practical tools for repairing their automobiles. They may use tools not well-suited for the job, which can further disturb asbestos, which can lead to asbestos exposure for themselves and others.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure From Automobile Mechanics

Asbestos exposure can happen for people who don’t work directly with the mineral in their jobs. Automobile mechanics can carry loose, dangerous asbestos fibers on their clothes or in their hair, which puts their family and friends at risk. The mechanics bring asbestos dust into their homes, leading to secondary asbestos exposure for spouses, children and grandchildren.

Examples of Automobile Workers Developing Mesothelioma

The researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison backed up their science by listing numerous mesothelioma cases involving brake installation and repair.

The cases mentioned include:

  • A male who “worked in the manufacturing of brake linings”
  • A 43-year-old woman who weaved brake linings for three years
  • A 47-year-old male whose only asbestos exposure occurred from his auto mechanic work
  • Two women from New York whose husbands were exposed to brake linings
  • A woman whose husband was a brake lining worker

A study from the University of Georgetown and Duke University examined 1,445 mesothelioma cases. Of them, 51 cases were from working on automobiles, which includes auto mechanics, brake repair workers and brake lining workers.

The Australian National Mesothelioma Registry consists of 6,329 cases from 1945-2000. Of the cases, 58 involved brake work as the only source of occupational asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma Verdicts for Automobile Mechanics

A few mesothelioma lawsuits show how automobile mechanics should be empowered to pursue the major companies responsible for their cancer.

A jury in Spokane, Washington, found Volkswagen AG of Germany and the American subsidiary of Volkswagen liable for exposing an auto mechanic to asbestos. The jury awarded a $5.75 million verdict to the former mechanic, who passed away. The majority of it went to the estate of the victim, who worked as an auto mechanic from 1972-1975 at Volkswagen’s Spokane dealership. He replaced brakes and clutches on Volkswagen vehicles.

Mesothelioma Guide Helps Former Mechanic Get Compensation

Mesothelioma Guide’s patient advocates and other staff members helped William Trokey, a former automobile mechanic, win a mesothelioma verdict against Ford Motor Company. William was a brake drum installer during the 1960s for the automobile manufacturer.

He and his wife, Kathy, each received $10 million for a total asbestos verdict of $20 million from a jury in St. Louis, Missouri. Mesothelioma Guide’s patient advocates guided the couple to representation from the veteran-owned law firm Simmons Hanly Conroy.

What to Do If You Did Automobile Work and Have Mesothelioma

Another harrowing statistic cited in the article from UW-M involves the work of Dr. Douglas Henderson, an expert for the World Trade Organization. He “calculated” that brake mechanics have 10 times the risk of developing mesothelioma compared to the general population.

Ten times the normal risk is quite a lot, and it’s more evidence to prove automobile work can lead to mesothelioma. If you repaired or installed brakes on automobiles, either professionally or at home, you could’ve been exposed to asbestos. The mineral was used for a majority of the 20th century without the general public knowing of its dangers.

If you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma, then we are here to support you. Our patient advocate team can explain your options, both medically and legally, and will do everything possible to help. Contact our patient advocate and registered nurse, Karen Ritter, at karen@mesotheliomaguide.com.

Sources & Author

    1. Mesothelioma from Asbestos Exposure in Brake Mechanics: Epidemiology in Context. OMICS International. Retrieved from: https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/mesothelioma-from-asbestos-exposure-in-brake-mechanics-epidemiology-in-context-2161-1165-1000340-101473.html. Accessed: 10/23/2019.
    2. Asbestos and Cancer Risk. American Cancer Society. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/asbestos.html. Accessed: 10/23/2019.
    3. Current Best Practices for Preventing Asbestos Exposure Among Brake and Clutch Repair Workers. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/current-best-practices-preventing-asbestos-exposure-among-brake-and-clutch-repair-workers-1. Accessed: 10/24/2019.
    4. Volkswagen AG, Group of America found responsible for mesothelioma death of Spokane man. KREM. Retrieved from: https://www.krem.com/article/news/local/washington/volkswagen-mesothelioma-death-spokane-man/293-fd72939c-9b2f-4f83-9462-ee0390ee9dc9. Accessed: 12/22/2022.
    5. Jury decides asbestos in Ford brake drums caused man’s mesothelioma, awards $20 million. St. Louis Record. Retrieved from: https://stlrecord.com/stories/621672220-jury-decides-asbestos-in-ford-brake-drums-caused-man-s-mesothelioma-awards-20-million. Accessed: 03/11/2022.
    6. Jury awards St. Louis County man $20 million in asbestos suit. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from: https://www.stltoday.com/business/jury-awards-st-louis-county-man-20-million-in-asbestos-suit/article_ce9efaa0-6eee-5474-8f67-d0e8ecf1dd1d.html. Accessed: 03/12/2022.
Devin Golden

About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is a content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.