Asbestos brake pads that can release deadly fibres during repairs will soon be banned in Ontario, if one member of the provincial parliament has her way.
Guelph MPP Liz Sandals tabled a bill today that, if passed, would be the first in Canada to block imports of asbestos brake pads from entering the Canadian market.
Most mechanics contacted by CBC News believed that asbestos was already banned from brake pads years ago. But figures from Statistics Canada show that more than $2.6 million worth of asbestos brake pads entered the country in 2011.
The federal government doesn't require Canadian border agents to verify whether companies are properly labelling these imports as containing asbestos.
Sandals says that when brakes are manufactured in Ontario, we know that they don’t contain asbestos.
"That's because of all the health and safety legislation around manufacturing in Ontario," she says. "But if they come from somewhere else in the world, we really have no idea what's in the brakes."
The lack of regulation makes it impossible for auto mechanics to tell whether dust released from car and truck brakes contains toxic fibres.
This worries Toronto mechanic Frank Esposito, who says he doesn't take any chances with brake dust.
"I just have the mentality that it’s always dangerous, so work with caution," he says. "At the end of the night I make sure I don't bring my clothes home because I don’t want to bring [the dust] home. And I wear a mask."
How mechanics are exposed
The risks are real. Retired mechanic Shannon Groves says people didn't know about the consequences of inhaling brake dust back when he was a young boy helping out in his father’s garage in Russell, Ont., southeast of Ottawa.
Nearly two years ago, Groves was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.
Doctors told Groves, 38, that his asbestos exposure was likely due to decades of working with brakes. "Usually this cancer is diagnosed in your 60s or 70s," he says, referring to the long latency period. But having worked in the shop as a kid, he says, "I’ve got my 30 years in already."
Along with chemotherapy and radiation, Groves endured a nine-hour surgery in 2011, in which doctors removed one of his lungs, and all the tissue lining his heart and abdomen. Despite the treatments, he says there is a 70 per cent chance the cancer will return in the next three years.
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Other diseases have also been linked to mechanics' exposure to asbestos brake dust, such as asbestosis and lung cancer. According to the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada, 58 auto mechanics died of asbestos-related diseases between 1996 and 2010.
When watching a brake job, it’s clear how mechanics might breathe in the deadly dust. Brake pads wear down after regular brake use, and the dust that is produced contains a mix of the fibres inside of them. As soon as a mechanic removes the circular brake drum from a car wheel to reveal the brake parts, black dust is released.
Experts have debated the usefulness of masks and gloves when it comes to preventing exposure to asbestos brake dust.
"They’re not particularly effective," says Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto.
'Get rid of asbestos'
Though Demers says proper respirators can prevent asbestos inhalation, the fibres can stick to clothing and equipment long after a car has left the garage bay.
"Once the dust is in that general environment there's going to be things that disturb it back into the air," he says. "The best idea is to get rid of asbestos-containing products."
Canadian and American manufacturers have largely replaced friction materials in brake pads with safer alternatives to asbestos, and the asbestos-containing pads that come into Canada from overseas make up only about nine per cent of the import value for aftermarket brake pads.
But Demers says, "Even at very low levels, if you expose people to asbestos, you’re going to get cases of mesothelioma."
Busy mechanics like Esposito would rather the threat was prevented altogether.
"I would hope the government would implement [rules] to make sure 100 per cent that it's not in the materials … sold in Canada," he says.
States like California and Washington have chosen to ban asbestos and other harmful chemicals from brake linings.
Risks from manufacturing: government
In a statement, Health Canada told CBC News that, "The primary risks associated with asbestos in brake pads would occur during the manufacturing process."
"Science has established that asbestos is only dangerous when fibres are present in the air that people breathe," the statement said. "If asbestos fibres are enclosed or tightly bound in a product, there are no significant health risks."
Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin, who was exposed to asbestos as a young man working in a Canadian asbestos mine, disagrees with this statement.
"This is one of the 'safe use' canards of asbestos products," he says. "There is no way to seal asbestos where it will remain permanently sealed."
Brake pads are meant to wear down, which can cause asbestos fibres to be released, Sandals notes.
"If your brakes are working properly, [then] every time you apply the brakes there's friction," says Sandals. "Gradually the material on the brake pads deteriorates, and that ends up in your wheel well."
Once you bring your car to the shop for a brake change, says Sandals, "The auto mechanic is working in that wheel well that is full of asbestos dust."
Martin says that an Ontario bill banning asbestos in brakes is a move in the right direction, but it's not enough.
"If it starts [in Ontario]
, it’ll spread," he says. "But … it doesn't let the federal government off the hook.
"They should be the champions of the people who are being exposed, and get out from under this class-A carcinogen altogether."
This story is the first in a three-part series, Exposed: On the Job, about carcinogens in Canadian workplaces. The series continues on Thursday and Friday.