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Putting the Brakes on Those Asbestos Linings

Question: Do brake linings still contain asbestos? I am thinking about changing my linings and was wondering whether I need to take any precautions. C.W.

Answer: A great many cars have asbestos brake linings, which spew out a powder containing asbestos as the brakes wear down. Most of the powder goes into the environment, but some of it clings to brake and wheel parts, until it is disturbed during a brake change.

Asbestos is a natural mineral that breaks down into tiny particles smaller than a blood cell, which can become lodged in the lungs and many years later cause cancer. So, you are right to be concerned.

Under federal law, asbestos brake production is supposed to stop in 1993 and auto manufacturers are supposed to stop using it in new cars by 1995. By 1997, all asbestos brake linings are supposed to be off store shelves and out of new cars.

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So, for the next seven years, there is plenty of asbestos that is going to be inhaled--unnecessarily. A common substitute for asbestos lining is semi-metallic brake linings, which contain metal particles in a bonding agent. These linings are harder and last longer, though they tend to squeak and squeal.

Semi-metallic brakes have been available for more than a decade. By the early 1980s, these linings were fully proven. Another new type of brake material is fiberglass.

It is not clear exactly who wants asbestos linings. Asbestos is notable for its heat resistance and wear properties, if you excuse its toxicity. Asbestos linings are cheaper than semi-metallic, disregarding the potential health costs. They also fare better when other parts of a brake system are not working perfectly.

Professional mechanics, however, are aware of the hazards and hate these linings. Anybody who lives next to a freeway off-ramp, where people constantly put on their brakes, gets an extra dose of asbestos in the air they breathe, studies show.

Nonetheless, these asbestos linings have a life of their own. Under the federal rules that will phase out the linings starting in 1993, foreign producers can continue to churn out the linings. In fact, imported cars contain a much higher proportion of asbestos linings than domestic cars, according to brake-industry experts.

If you are planning to do your own brake job and you suspect that the linings are asbestos, you should take some precautions. The safest approach would be to purchase a respirator rated for asbestos. Don’t use an ordinary dust mask available at a hardware or paint store. These won’t filter out the microscopic asbestos particles. You might find a rated respirator at an industrial supply store. In the past, you could buy a fairly inexpensive, disposable fabric respirator that is rated for asbestos.

Once you have your wheels off and brakes exposed, you certainly do not want to blow out the dust with your mouth or compressed air, since this creates a rather large toxic cloud around your head. Just leave the dust alone.

The next problem you will face is what to do with the brake linings. Under some local regulations, you are suppose to dispose of asbestos in a toxic waste dump. You could probably spend an entire weekend finding one of these. As an alternative, you might simply put the old linings in a heavy plastic bag and take them to a local garage, which presumably will dispose of them properly.

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Unless you are really hard up for the money, it might be best to leave the brake job to a professional and insist that metallic brake linings be used. Then, the next time you need brakes, you can spend your Saturday afternoon working on your brakes with confidence you aren’t poisoning your lungs.

Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.


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