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Asbestos and Vintage Cars

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 8 Mar 2015 | comments*Discuss
Asbestos Vintage Car Components Fibres

In the UK there has been much media exposure into the dangerous effects of inhaling high levels of air born asbestos fibres. Research in recent years has identified the hazardous nature of these fibres once they enter the lungs. Inhalation of asbestos can lead to lung disease such as cancer or asbestosis. Asbestos will not pose a risk if the material it inhabits is completely intact. The risk of inhalation does of course increase when the lining or component containing asbestos is torn damaged or compromised in a way that will allow the asbestos fibres to easily become airborne.

The Use of Asbestos

At present, asbestos does not tend to be used in the manufacturing of clutches and brake components in the UK, EU or US. But for decades asbestos was used in many industries, such as building and construction and the automotive industry. In some countries it continues to be used. The extreme heat-resistant qualities made it a seemingly perfect material to use in the manufacture of mechanical car components that are consistently exposed to high temperatures. In vintage cars, it also made an appearance in some bodywork panels, particularly around the bulkhead.

In vintage cars, the danger occurs when the brake discs or clutch lining that contains asbestos begins to wear down. The damage allows small asbestos fibres to mix with the dust and this is when they are in a most dangerous state. This dust has a tendency to build up around the clutch, brakes (especially drum brakes) and possibly even the gasket. Never casually blow or brush away any of the dust in these areas. Also take into consideration that any replacement or repair that involves moving, drilling, hammering, sanding or filing on or around the components can disturb this dust and lead to small yet dangerous amounts of the ‘contaminated’ dust being inhaled. For this reason, never assume that any of the aforementioned mechanical components do not contain asbestos.

It is strongly advised that unless the correct equipment is utilised and the safety procedures are followed – usually in a specialised workshop - cleaning brakes with an air compressor should not be undertaken. The risk of asbestos inhalation is simply far too high. If you insist on undertaking any work that may disturb the asbestos, try dampening down around the area that you intend to work on, as this will limit the movement of the dust. But it is generally best to steer clear of trying to tinker, re-shape or modify old clutch or brake linings in vintage cars at all.

In vintage cars, asbestos can also be found in materials used around the bulkhead. It may be present in sound-deadening panels around the bulkhead itself, as well as in floor panels. Again, never assume when working on these areas that your car components are free of asbestos.

If you feel that work involving damaged components containing asbestos is just too risky, there are a multitude of companies that will undertake the work on your behalf. They have all the necessary safety equipment that limits the amount of fibres that can be inhaled in the workplace and will safely dispose of the spent components or lining.

You may refer to vintage car maintenance literature from past decades that might refer to the use of asbestos. At the time of publication, it is worth noting that the hazardous health risks were not fully known and as such asbestos was advocated as a useful material in certain components and jobs.

Safety in the Workshop

It is also worth noting that the asbestos dust can collect in the area that the car is stored or worked on. As it can be present in the dust, it can settle almost anywhere – floors, shelving, walls or toolboxes. Basically in any little nook or cranny. Sweeping, vacuuming, hammering, using an air compressor or even heavy footsteps can disturb the dust. Remember that asbestos can also be present in old garage or workshop wall linings, so if repairs or renovations are planned, this should always be factored in. By law, this means contacting the relevant council authorities to arrange any safe removal or disposal for you.

Generally, if undertaking any repairs or replacements on a vintage car - especially around the brakes, brake lining and pads, clutch, some panels or even gaskets - ideally specialist advice or undertaking of the work should be sought.

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