Do you remember replacing the brake pads on a vehicle at any time up until the end of 2004? If so, you may not have been aware that you could have breathed in asbestos dust at the time. It’s a little-known fact that when the UK finally introduced a ban on the use of white chrysotile asbestos in mid 1985, a five year exemption was granted to all pre-1973 vehicles.

As asbestos awareness to the long term fatal health risk began to drive reforms across all industries, the exemption was given to allow car manufacturers time to develop new lining materials. It was not until January 2005 that the UK complied with a EU directive to completely ban the use of white asbestos. Even after this time, asbestos was considered a superior material for pad linings, and were actually sought after because they lasted longer and thus, reduced wear on the disks.

The potential risk may seem tiny but, thirty years ago, the real danger was more likely to be present in thousands of small garages around the UK. Every day, car mechanics would have replaced the brake pads and shoes on those older vehicles containing asbestos friction materials. In one recent tragic case, a man who once worked at his family-run car repair garage was diagnosed and eventually succumbed to mesothelioma, aged just 55.

Widely used as an inexpensive heat insulator

Asbestos has been used in automobile brake pads and other friction products since cylinder brake linings were first developed in 1902. The mineral fibres were widely used as an inexpensive heat insulator in many industrial products and applications, including vehicle parts, such as brakes, clutches, gaskets. heat seals, valve rings and the bonnet lining. It wasn’t until the arrival of front-wheel drive vehicles in the 1980s when the fibre material was largely phased out after the first UK ban on the most toxic brown and blue asbestos fibres.

Up until that time, over a third (35 per cent) of brake lining material could contain asbestos fibres for structural reinforcement and heat resistance. Continual abrasion releases microscopic asbestos fibres into the atmosphere and large amounts of asbestos material is trapped inside the brake housing or clutch space, which is then released when replacement or repair work is carried out.

“Brake dust was always in the air”

In his statement, the middle-aged victim, who used to help in the family garage between 1977 to 1986 – when he was in his teens and early twenties – recalls regularly stripping down “extremely dusty” brake pads containing “a lot of asbestos”. Two of the most common ways that garage workers were often exposed to asbestos was through the routine tasks of using an air hose to “blow out” and clean the surface of brake components.

Another former car mechanic, who also recently died, aged 67 – less than a year after a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma – describes how it was “normal in the trade for the brake dust in the drums to be blown out with an airline, so that it was always in the air”. As a result, asbestos dust “covered everything and everyone in the factory” and “no-one wore masks or any kind of safety equipment”.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) state that vehicle workshop dust was often found to contain between 2.26 per cent and 63.8 per cent of asbestos. More than 0.1 per cent asbestos in a dust sample is classified as ‘Hazardous Waste’.

The alarming news is that there could still be a potential risk of contact with vehicle parts containing asbestos materials.

Illegal brake pads containing asbestos

A number of brake pad products continue to be produced by non-OEM (original equipment manufacturers), especially among developing nations. China is the second highest manufacturing source of products which uses asbestos fibres, and Australia appears to be a target market for China’s asbestos brake pads and linings.

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. Toyota, who are the world’s largest car maker, recently announced dealers and independent mechanics in Australia may have unwittingly installed thousands of fake brake pads containing asbestos on a range of vehicles, including HiAce models (2005-2015) and HiLux models (2004-2015).

Just prior to the UK, Australia completely banned asbestos during 2004, yet the illegal brake pads containing the deadly fibres from China keep entering Australia. Despite guarantees of compliance with Australian standards, since 2009, nearly 25,000 Chinese cars from two different manufacturers imported into Australia were discovered to contain asbestos fibres in nearly 30 different engine gaskets and also in the exhaust system.

Concern was recently raised that asbestos materials may be reaching the UK too. In August 2016, HSE began to investigate the UK side of s Chinese company’s supply chain, involving the specification, quality assurance and quantity of materials they bring into the country.