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Homepage. This page: Precautions when working with classic car brake and clutch linings containing asbestos particles.

Asbestos in classic car components.

Old brake components can contain asbestos so must be treated with care

Being aware of the dangers that asbestos and lead in older car components presents.

Restoring a classic car or truck can be a very enjoyable pastime, and is the perfect excuse to get out of the house and hide away in the garage for a few hours at a time. However, it is vital to take care when dealing with old car parts, whether new-old-stock, or still fitted to the car, that could cause you real harm. Treat them correctly and you should be fine however. I must stress that I am not an expert in this field, and this article is only an introduction to what is a very complex subject. To find out the very latest thinking on this matter I recommend searching on the 'net for specialist advice.

Asbestos in brake linings and other parts fitted to older cars.

One of the key problem areas when working on older cars is asbestos. In the years before the dangers of asbestosis were understood, asbestos was a common material used in certain car components, and even in the buildings that they were parked up in. It is therefore essential to have an understanding of what you are dealing with, before diving in and pulling your classic car apart.

Perhaps the most obvious and well known area to be careful with is brake dust, specifically the dust that falls out of your brake drum when checking the shoes for wear etc. Great care must be taken not to inhale the dust that can drop out when the brake drum is freed off. Cranky old cars that haven't seen the road for many moons often have seized up components with which you have to contend, and many times the only way to free up a sticking drum is by tapping it with a hammer on either side, to free the inner surface from the brake lining itself. Excessive hammering can launch nasty brake dust into the atmosphere, so tread very carefully and, if nothing else, dampen down the area you are working in, to avoid scattering asbestos-contaminated dust around the workplace. And don't forget, when the job is done, take equal care when sweeping up afterwards as the dust will fly up from the floor. Brand new cars, and newly-made brake linings, no longer contain this material in their brake linings, but anything over say 10-15 years old may well still have asbestos in their brake lining or disc brake pad material.

Asbestos is nasty stuff when in powdered form, so I cannot emphasise enough the importance of treating it with great care. As well as in the braking system, asbestos can also be found in head gaskets, and some pre-war cars I believe have traces of this material in the sound deadening panels fitted to bulkheads, so treat any suspicious-looking material covering with respect. Bulkhead material that looks like thick grey cardboard, should be treated with extreme care. Clutch friction plates also contain asbestos, so treat any work in this area with care too, and never be tempted to drill, sand, cut or otherwise modify a clutch lining.

Garage roofing sheets.

Many older garage roofs contain asbestos fibres within them, and so long as the sheeting is undamaged shouldn't cause any risk to health. Where things can get tricky is if the sheeting is damaged, or worse, the material has to be drilled or otherwise modified. Any attempt at drilling material containing asbestos is to be avoided. Once again the related risks with working on old motor-cars rears its head again - do not be tempted to file down brake linings to make them fit better or otherwise 'improve' your braking system. Books from the 1930s may not recognise asbestosis as a risk when doing this, but knowledge gained in recent years is quite conclusive on the risks involved.
The workshop manual for one of my old vehicles, built in the 1950s, advocates the use of asbestos wool in the vicinity of welded repairs to the car's bodywork. It does mention that it has to be dampened (in this case to soak up heat from welding, to avoid the distortion of nearby bodywork) but makes no mention of the care with which this material should be handled.

Lead dust.

Whilst touching on the recommendations given in workshop manuals from years ago, it is worth mentioning the use of lead loading in bodywork repairs. The same manual gives step-by-step instructions on how to fill using lead, then filing off the surplus using hand tools. Dust from lead being sanded (and indeed older paints that usually contained lead) is also extremely bad news to breath in, and whilst a hand-powered plane shouldnt create too much really fine dust, never feel tempted to speed things up by using power tools to sand down any lead used as a body filler. This is also something to bear in mind when stripping the paint off a vintage or classic car - the paint may well contain lead in it, and the coachwork below may feature lead loaded joints, so the best advice is to work slowly, using methods that do not generate clouds of potentially very unpleasant dust.

Dismantling your classic car's garage.

If you are planning to replace an older garage, it is essential to contact your local council to arrange professional removal of roofing or panels that contain asbestos in their creation. Never break down roofing panels yourself into smaller pieces, perhaps to fit in the back of your car to take to the tip - always bring in the proper people with the correct equipment, to dismantle and remove such panelling. There are no cures for asbestosis, so take no chances.
Inhaling asbestos dust, even in small quantities, can lead to serious health problems further on in life, such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. A search on the internet for any of these terms will bring up lists of law suits and professional advice on the subject, from people far more qualified than I on this subject.

In summary.

The general consensus is that so long as the product containing asbestos is sealed, undamaged, and in its original state (such as undamaged roofing sheet for instance) then there should be no health risk, the problems start when this original state breaks down and the fibres are released into the atmosphere. Once in this state is is known as Friable, and at this stage easily digested or breathed in. Particles are very very small and, as such, get absorbed deep within your body and hang around in the air a long time, ready to be breathed in. To give you an idea of how fine these fibres are, a human hair is approximately 1200 times wider than a fiber of asbestos! Dampening down any collection of brake dust before sweeping up can lessen the risk, but do not be tempted to vacuum up (or worse blow away) any build up of dust in the brake or clutch areas, as this releases the dust into the air, where it stays for a long period of time.
There are some excellent resources online on this subject. The Health and Safety Executive have a write-up on this subject, over on the UK Government website. Perhaps the most comprehensive website I have seen on the subject is Asbestos Network, which deals with this subject not only for owners of older cars, but details many other products and household items and finishes that must be treated with caution. Did you realise that old irons, toasters, hair dryers, talcs and crockpots may contain traces of asbestos fibres? I certainly didnt! this link will tell you more.
Apologies if this is rather gloomy reading, tinkering with classic cars and other old vehicles should be (and usually is) a jolly pleasant pastime, this page is really just a heads-up for anyone planning to work on their chosen old jalopy to tread carefully, and not just charge in to working on their prized vehicle without a little knowledge of the risks that can be present!

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