Driverless cars will be on our roads within the next ten years, according to announcements in 2016 from many of the global motor vehicle brands, including Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, Toyota and Nissan. The predicted mass shift to automated personal transport is hailed as a revolutionary 21st C advance.

It is, therefore, ironic that manufacturing processes from the last century, which widely used asbestos in brake pads, linings and other friction materials will, in the decades ahead, also continue to equally affect many lives, i.e. those who worked directly with vehicle parts.

In the most recent case of asbestos exposure in the motor industry, a 65 year old car worker lost his life to mesothelioma after years of exposure to asbestos dust while making vehicle brake pads. The victim, who battled the incurable cancer of the lung linings for two years had been employed at the factory almost continuously between 1974 and 1977.

Medical science has long known that the potential for developing mesothelioma cancer can lay dormant for up to 50 years or more from an initial period of exposure before the first asbestosis symptoms emerge. Life expectancy following a confirmed diagnosis can be as little as 2 weeks to 2 years or more, according to the stage the cancer has reached, plus the age and health of the patient can all be influencing factors.

One year on, the family of the former car parts worker have agreed a five-figure out-of-court settlement of their mesothelioma claim from the employer following an investigation into how asbestos exposure occurred.

Up to 35 per cent of a brake lining product could contain asbestos

Vehicle brake pads and other friction products have been made using asbestos as far back as 1902 when cylinder brake linings were first developed. From the 1940s onwards, and until the first ban was introduced in the mid 1980s, more than 5 million metric tons of brown, blue and white asbestos was imported into the UK to be used as insulation in almost every industrial, construction and manufacturing process. During the time that the former car parts worker was employed during the mid 1970s, an average of 141,000 tons was imported every year.

Brake pads are made from five types of materials – binders, abrasives, performance, filler and structure. Up to 35 per cent of a brake lining product could contain asbestos fibres used to supply structural reinforcement and heat resistance. Asbestos materials were largely phased out after the arrival of front-wheel drive vehicles in the 1980s, coinciding with introduction of the UK ban.

Today, there is a global asbestos awareness to the fatal health risks of mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis disease. However, motor industry insiders also say that in some countries, asbestos could still be used in higher-end vehicles and are also available on the spare parts “after sales” market. In different parts of the world the deadly fibres can still be found in a number of brake pad products being produced by non-OEM (original equipment manufacturers), especially China, the 2nd highest manufacturing source of products using the deadly fibres.

Asbestos fibres in nearly 30 different engine gaskets

It was recently reported that counterfeit “Toyota” brake pads made with asbestos and designed to fit more than 500,000 of their vehicles currently on Australian roads were discovered in genuine branded packaging. Australia banned asbestos in 2004, however, since 2009 nearly 25,000 Chinese cars from two different manufacturers were discovered to contain asbestos fibres in nearly 30 different engine gaskets and also in the exhaust system.

The continuing debate surrounding the potential health risks of chrysotile asbestos led to The Occupational and Environmental Health sector carrying out studies into whether sufficient asbestos is present in brake linings, which would eventually cause mesothelioma. Researchers concluded that there was a ‘net’ of evidence favouring a link between chrysotile exposure from brake pad dust and mesothelioma.

Wholly inadequate to prevent men from inhaling the fibre dust

Among a number of recent cases in Britain involving men who lost their lives to mesothelioma as result of working with vehicle brake pads during the 1970s and 80s was a former London Transport bus mechanic who used to change brake shoes and linings while still a 19 year old apprentice and a retired vehicle mechanic, aged 67, who worked in the garage trade changing car brake pads made with asbestos.

As was almost a common failing throughout British industry at this time, employers simply didn’t provide any health and safety information or issue any personal protective equipment. In some cases, only the most basic paper mask was supplied, which was wholly inadequate to prevent men from inhaling the fibre dust.

More than thirty years after the first asbestos ban and fifteen years following the halt on white asbestos imports there are still a high number of mesothelioma cases reported today, which are the result of exposures that occurred in the years before 1980.

The number of deaths from industrial disease attributed to mesothelioma has risen in the UK almost four-fold in the same period.