There were very few industrial manufacturers around the UK that did not use the deadly asbestos mineral as a low cost insulating material incorporated within machinery and domestic products throughout the 20th century. Mostly concentrated in the Midlands, the north of England and the shipyards of the south coast, asbestos was also widely used by the vehicle industry in making brake and clutch linings, gaskets and washers.
Raising asbestos awareness was a long and arduous process due to a deliberate lack of concern by employers to the fatal health risks of mesothelioma and asbestosis , which were increasingly being made known. Although the most dangerous of the serpentine (curly fibre) asbestos group – blue amosite and brown crocidolite – was banned by 1985, and the less harmful white chrysotile in 1999, the latter was still finding its’ way into many products, including AIB building materials, which still continues to be found in homes, work premises, engines and machinery in 2011.
Many workers in the vehicle manufacture industry – even right up to the early 1980s – had little to no awareness that the asbestos they would daily be exposed to when handling items such as gaskets, washers, packing strips, brake pads, steam hoses and sheet packing would eventually lead to asbestos-related diseases at the latter end of their lives. It is now well documented that there is an unusually long gestation period of between 15 – 50 years before mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms appear with a prognosis of only a 4 – 18 month survival rate.
Even though increasing restrictions were being placed on the manufacture of asbestos-containing products by the 1970s, very few products were banned outright. The production of clutch linings and similar friction-causing parts, where asbestos was used an effective heat insulator, continued.
While white chrysotile asbestos may not be considered dangerous when left undisturbed or bound to other materials, e.g. gaskets, eventually these materials will need to be replaced. Although asbestos is no longer used in the manufacturing of most car parts, auto repair workers in garage workshops can be easily exposed to the asbestos dust fibres when working on clutches, disc brakes, pads, and gaskets – especially on older or vintage cars.
As these parts wear, asbestos dust builds up in the clutch and brake compartments. Whenever the parts are removed for servicing or replacement, the dust is released into the air, which the mechanic can easily inhale. Even cleaning by the use of compressed air or a vacuum can also release the fibres which can adhere to clothing, hair or work boots, and if taken home for washing can cause ‘secondary exposure’ to family members.
In auto repair garages today, it is still vitally important to wear the correct protective equipment, including a respirator, to guard against exposure to the deadly dust when removing asbestos-containing parts.