Asbestos ghosts from our industrial past continue to haunt the modern world. A retired vehicle mechanic who had worked in the garage trade changing car brake pads made of asbestos since the 1960s and 70s, has recently loss his life to malignant mesothelioma.

The story is a tragically familiar one. In a written statement, the former car mechanic, who died aged 67 less than a year after a confirmed diagnosis, 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”.

Up to 35 per cent of a brake lining product can contain asbestos fibres used to supply structural reinforcement and heat resistance. Repeated friction 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.

Many employers failed to provide protective equipment

Despite the introduction of asbestos regulations throughout British industry in 1969, which aimed to reduce occupational exposure wherever asbestos was used, in reality many employers failed to provide protective equipment, clothing or health information.

Vehicle brake pads and cylinder linings manufactured from asbestos fibres, were first developed in 1902 and were largely phased out after the arrival of front-wheel drive vehicles in the 1980s, which also saw the UK ban on using the most dangerous brown and blue asbestos fibres. Nevertheless, some motor industry insiders say that in some countries, they are still sometimes used in higher-end vehicles and available on the spare parts “after sales” market.

As asbestos awareness  of the human cost became more accepted more than 50 countries around the world eventually followed Britain and the US in prohibiting the import and use of the toxic fibres. However, white chrysotile asbestos was not prohibited in the UK for another 15 years and could still be used in many applications, including automobile assembly friction products, such as brake pads, disc brakes, clutches and gaskets.

Counterfeit brake pads

Around the world, asbestos fibres can still be found in a number of brake pad products being produced by non-OEM (original equipment manufacturers), especially among developing nations, such as China. In 2013, China produced 420,000 metric tons of asbestos – the 2nd highest manufacturing source of products using 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).

Australia banned asbestos in 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.

Cause and effect link between asbestos brake dust and mesothelioma

So are there illegal asbestos containing brake pads in Britain? It’s highly unlikely that quality name brand brake pads and linings sold at reputable national outlets would be compromised but cheap import auto products found online could contain asbestos. Vintage and classic cars arguably could possibly retain original working parts contaminated with asbestos.

The potential health risks still remain. Recent research in the Occupational and Environmental Health sector has taken a further look at whether there is evidence to show that sufficient asbestos is present in brake linings to eventually cause mesothelioma.

Forensic analysis and observational evaluation of patterns of risk, cause and effect have led researchers to conclude that “there is a ‘net’ of evidence which suggests a ‘cause and effect’ link between brake dust-associated white asbestos exposure and mesothelioma”.

This latest conclusion adds to previous assessments of chrysotile as a Class 1 cancer-causing agent. While exposure to white asbestos may be considered ‘low risk’ compared to the brown and blue types, nevertheless, there is still not a safe level of exposure established, below which white asbestos is not a threat to long term health, including dust from brake pad linings.