Prior to the 1980s, plant and factory workers were highly likely to undergo asbestos exposure, with the automobile industry being one of the most hazardous. Auto parts commonly contained asbestos and the grinding of the parts would often lead to particles of the mineral becoming airborne and being inhaled by the workers.
Without masks and protective respirators, the fibers could easily enter the body and increase the chance of lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma as well as other serious diseases. Individuals who were at the most risk were those who worked with brake assembly. Manufacturing equipment as well as industrial fans often contained gaskets and other materials that were made from asbestos. Welders often also wore protective gear that was made with the material. Although the material was well able to protect against heat, the wearing out of the clothing would lead to the release of the fibers.
Asbestos and the Automobile Industry
The linings of brakes were constructed using asbestos because of the material’s resistance to heat. Individuals who handled and worked with these parts could easily inhale fibers that were released. After inhalation, the fibers are able to become lodged in the lung’s lining as well as the abdominal cavity or heart and potentially lead to conditions such as mesothelioma, a rare and highly fatal form of cancer. The condition has a long period of latency, up to 50 years. Because of this, it took many years for a connection to be made between the disease and previous asbestos exposure.
Although asbestos has been banned in a number of industries, there are some in which it is still permitted such as in brake linings. Although auto parts may not be manufactured in the U.S. using asbestos, other countries still frequently use the material. In the year 1989, the EPA instituted regulations to control and limit asbestos use but this ruling was overruled in 1991. Initially, General Motors accepted the regulations and said that they would cease to use asbestos in gaskets and other products by 1997. However, this did not occur as the agreement between auto companies and EPA was determined to be illegal. Even as late as 1998, GM was selling car models within the U.S. that contained asbestos within the linings and gaskets. Because of this, auto mechanics and workers in these plants were exposed to the mineral when they were working with this equipment even when safety equipment was worn.