Asbestos came into the commercial sphere in the late 1800s and use increased heavily as a result of World War II. As asbestos usage continued to grow in many industries, especially the automotive sector, so did the health risks. In 1970, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned asbestos use in wallboards and fireplaces, but it wasn’t until 1989 that a true asbestos ban was put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency for all new uses of asbestos.
Asbestos-Containing Automobile Parts
The automotive industry used asbestos throughout many vehicle parts, such as brake shoes and clutch pads. These parts helped the car stay insulated and fireproofed. Asbestos also helped keep the parts functioning longer, as many parts are exposed to high temperatures and friction. Other parts that typically contained asbestos include:
- Heat seals
- Hood liners
- Valve Rings
- Air hoses
- Automobile hoses
- Body construction
- Clutches and clutch facings
- Engine components
Once the asbestos is coated in other materials, as with brakes, the fibers are concealed and do not pose an immediate risk to the driver. However, once the brake pads start to wear out, technicians and do-it-yourself technicians replacing their own brakes risk exposure.
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Despite the EPA’s ban, asbestos was not completely eliminated from the consumer market. One brake supplier specifically stated that Ford was using asbestos linings in breaks up to 1993. Due to asbestos’s beneficial characteristics regarding heat dampening and braking, it was also noted that some imports such as Land Rover also may contain these parts.
Workers in the automotive industry fell under the high risk occupation category, as they were particularly at risk for asbestos exposure. This includes workers involved in the manufacturing of individual parts and assembling the vehicles as a whole. Repair technicians were also at risk whether changing brakes or other parts in the vehicles that contained asbestos.
Any of these workers that were employed before 1989 had a strong chance of being exposed to asbestos, as many regulations did not go far enough to protect workers.
How Asbestos Exposure Occurs
With some suppliers deciding to not remove asbestos from their products, mechanics and do-it-yourself technicians came into contact with these parts. When working on a vehicle that contains asbestos linings and clutch covers, there is significant risk of exposure to asbestos dust.
The high friction necessary for brakes to work and common while shifting gears means that there will most likely be wear and tear on these parts. When asbestos is disturbed in this way, microscopic fibers are released into the air. Once the mechanic opens these parts up, or starts working with them, they can further release these particles, thus causing the exposure. Exposure over time can lead to severe health complications, such as mesothelioma.
After the particles are released into the air they can be further spread. The fibers get into clothing and can become attached to supplies used to clean the workspace such as mops and vacuums. If fibers make it onto clothing they can be transported with the mechanic to their home, potentially exposing the family.
Growing public health concerns compelled the CPSC, EPA and OSHA to step up regulations to protect workers and the public from exposure. Though these organizations focused on different types of regulations and had differing authority over where those could be implemented, they played crucial roles in stemming asbestos risks.
The CPSC first put regulations on asbestos in 1979. These regulations only stopped asbestos use in wallboards and fireplaces as a way to reduce asbestos exposure into the environment. Regulations did not make bigger steps until ten years later.
The EPA stepped up asbestos regulations in 1989. This was a partial ban that blocked manufacture, import, processing and distribution of some asbestos products. These regulations also aimed to stop new asbestos products from entering the market. These regulations were overturned by a court of appeals in New Orleans allowing uses established prior to 1989. A final full ban was implemented by the EPA in 2019, ensuring that asbestos products may not return to the market once they are off.
Ranging from 1990 to 2019, OSHA has released workplace guidelines and fact sheets to help employers and employees better understand asbestos risks.
Government organizations were not the only instruments used to fight against the dangers of asbestos exposure. The auto workers union backed the fight in 2005, building a plan that would create $140 billion in funds to help support victims of asbestos exposure. This fund was to be funded by companies facing asbestos lawsuits, however the fund never made it past the committee.
Despite the lack of an asbestos fund for auto workers, one lawsuit awarded $18.5 million in financial compensation to the family of a mechanic who worked in an auto shop in the ‘70s. The mechanic developed mesothelioma in March 2017 nearly 40 years after his exposure. His family sued on his behalf and was awarded compensation by the jury.
Many companies stopped making asbestos products or shut down once the EPA put up regulations in 1989. Some products still exist however, and many companies who sold those products are now being sued for asbestos exposure. Some companies that produced asbestos automotive products include:
- Raymark Industries, Inc.
- General Motors
- Pep Boys
- Advance Auto Parts Inc.
- O’Reilly Automotive Stores, Inc.
- Genuine Parts
- Daimler Chrysler
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Samuel Meirowitz is a member of the “Top 100 Trial Lawyers.” Mr. Meirowitz was named a “Rising Star” in 2013 & 2014 by Super Lawyers and then a Super Lawyer every year since 2016. In 2013, Mr. Meirowitz obtained what is believed to be the first multi-million-dollar asbestos verdict seen in more than two decades in a New York federal court. In that highly contentious matter, Mr. Meirowitz was able to convince the jury to hold a boiler manufacturer responsible for 60 percent of the $3.8 million awarded, despite the defendant’s attempt to escape all blame by pointing fingers at the plaintiff’s employer and the U.S. Navy (in which the plaintiff admirably served from 1966-70 during the Vietnam conflict). This verdict was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.Learn More
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- Castillo, Lhalie. (Sep 2018). Surviving spouse files wrongful death suit against Autozone, others over alleged asbestos exposure. Retrieved from https://stlrecord.com/stories/511558889-surviving-spouse-files-wrongful-death-suit-against-autozone-others-over-alleged-asbestos-exposure
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- National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet