We are familiar with the uses and frequency of asbestos containing materials in our buildings. Whether it be asbestos cement used in roofing sheets on a garage roof, or asbestos pipe lagging in a factory boiler room, we are aware of the dangers of such asbestos containing materials.
It is highly durable, flexible and has fantastic thermal properties meaning it was heralded for a variety of construction and industrial uses throughout the twentieth century before far reaching and serious health implications were discovered its use was finally banned in 1999.
However, asbestos was just as commonly used in the motor industry in the twentieth century for these reasons and therefore had significant uses in automobiles during this period. Asbestos containing components were just as useful to the engineering of a motor vehicle, for the same reasons as it was excellent for construction activities. Asbestos is therefore a very common component found in classic cars manufactured in the twentieth century. Use of the components was prohibited in 1999, when the UK introduced a ban on all importation and manufacturing of asbestos materials. However, there was an exception to this in that pre-1973 vehicles could continue to be fitted with asbestos containing brake shoes until 2004.
The automotive industry used asbestos heavily. This was largely due to the fact that asbestos possesses the unique ability to both insulate and prevent heat transfer due to its fantastic thermal properties. This makes it ideal for use in a wide variety of automotive applications which are centred around the internal combustion engine and friction-based brakes.
Amongst the most common car parts to contain asbestos are brake pads and shoes, gaskets, internal combustion components, clutches, heat seals and insulation. It is possible that older and classic cars could contain asbestos containing parts.
Care must be taken when replacing any of these parts in an older or ‘classic’ car, and it is recommended that you presume that they may be asbestos. These parts must only be replaced with non-asbestos containing parts. Caution must be exercised when purchasing or selling second hand car parts via the internet or other methods. Fitting of asbestos parts is illegal and selling asbestos containing parts is also illegal. The HSE states that: ‘The supply, possession for supply and fitting of asbestos products to motor vehicles and trailers is now banned’ (1) You should ensure that you have parts tested for asbestos if you are in any doubt about them. You will then be issued with a certificate for the product which will illustrate whether the component is asbestos-containing or not.
The HSE also recommends that all brake and clutch dust is potentially harmful, so it is important in all cases to never blow dust out of brake drums or clutch or clutch hosing with an airline, always use properly designed drum cleaning equipment to prevent dust escaping, or use clean wet rags to clean drums or housings.
Likewise, the HSE also recommends that any component which is suspected to contain asbestos including the rags used to clean the drums or housing should be disposed of as ‘asbestos waste’. For further information on how to dispose of asbestos waste see the HSE’s guidance sheet for Disposing of Asbestos (2).
Listed below are some of the most common places to find asbestos in classic cars:
Brakes are the most common place to find asbestos. Asbestos was used in brake shoes, pads and rotors and are still used in countries where asbestos is legal to use. Brakes rely on the forces of friction to function properly. Friction releases heat which the asbestos insulates against.
Asbestos was perfect for use as hoodliners in classic cars as it protected the underside of the cars hood from damage due to engine heat.
Clutches are built to withstand a great deal of friction and grinding, therefore asbestos was commonly used within clutch components.
Gaskets were used in automobile hoses and engine parts. Asbestos was used to both increase durability and prevent heat transfer
Heat seals were used to protect against heat transfer among many different engine and automotive parts
Asbestos packings were used in piston rings intended to reduce wear upon the cylinder walls of the cars motor
Internal combustion engines release heat. Engine components must be protected against heat to function properly. Asbestos was used in the engine parts components to serve this purpose
Asbestos is also durable making it attractive for inclusion in fibre glass or plastic compounds from which auto-body parts were made
Asbestos was used to keep the inhabitants warm or cool depending on the outside temperature
Asbestos was used as insulation in car batteries, both as loose fill asbestos between casing walls and in the casing itself.
(1) HSE, Asbestos in Motor Vehicles, http://www.hse.gov.uk/mvr/mechanical-repair/asbestos.htm
(2) HSE, Disposing of Asbestos, http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/guidance/em9.pdf