Asbestos in Brake Pads: What the Average Consumer Might Not Realize

Asbestos in Brake Pads: What the Average Consumer Might Not Realize

Asbestos: a known human carcinogen.

And yet, contrary to popular belief, asbestos and asbestos-containing products are not completely banned in the US.

Aftermarket products most likely to contain asbestos

Most auto manufacturers haven’t installed asbestos-containing brake components since the 1990s due to health concerns for those that perform brake-related automotive repair or maintenance.

And yet, asbestos-containing products continue to present a health risk in the automotive aftermarket industry in North America, primarily due to high sales of low-cost, asbestos-containing brake parts from countries such as China and India.  In fact, between 1996 and 2006 the number of asbestos-containing imported brakes had increased 83% and the low-cost advantages of such imports has continued to promote their sales through the current day, putting automotive mechanics at an increased risk of asbestos-related disease.

A proposed ban, overruled

Asbestos has been prohibited by the EPA in certain fireproofing, insulating, and other applications since the 1970s.

In 1989, the EPA proposed a ban on the manufacture, import, processing, and sale of asbestos-containing products to be phased out over seven years. But asbestos industry supporters challenged the ban in court.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the first stage of the EPA ban -- which prohibited new uses of asbestos, banned imported asbestos products, and ended the asbestos use in roofing and flooring felt, sheeting and tile, and clothing -- but overturned the second stage, which would have stopped asbestos use in products such as brake drum linings, automotive transmission components, gaskets, and other friction parts, as well as in the production and use of roof coatings, brake blocks, paper, pipe, and shingles made with asbestos.

A changing landscape: Asbestos in North America

Nevertheless, the automotive industry in the US recognizes the threat asbestos-containing brake part imports posed to auto mechanics’ health, and in 2010 California and Washington passed legislation that will require brake pads sold or installed in these states to have reduced levels of copper (no more than 5% by weight by January 1, 2021 in both states and no more than 0.5% copper by weight in California by January 1, 2025) and other heavy metals (no more than 0.1% by weight of asbestos, cadmium, chromium, lead, or mercury as of January 1, 2015).

On January 21, 2015, several automotive industry trade associations signed the Copper Free Brakes initiative, a voluntary Memorandum of Understanding with the EPA and the Environmental Council of the States, that extends standards adopted in California and Washington nationwide.

Like the US, auto manufacturers in Canada ceased the installation of asbestos-containing brake parts more than a decade ago, but in December 2016 the federal government in Canada announced a comprehensive ban on asbestos imports and use by 2018.

These initiatives have implications for the automotive brake parts aftermarket in North America, restraining future sales of low-cost imports from China and India, which are more likely to contain asbestos.  Replacement brake part sales in the US and Canada will see a shift in the product mix toward alternatives such as NAO brake pads (which are less expensive, but also less durable, than asbestos-containing alternatives) and high-value, durable ceramic brake pads.

A lack of regulation in Mexico, however, will promote ongoing sales of cheap, asbestos-containing brake parts in this nation.

To find out more

Need more information?  For historical demand data and forecasts by product, performer, and country, see The Freedonia Group’s upcoming series of studies on the automotive aftermarket, including:

These studies also cover market environment factors, industry structure, company market share, and leading companies. 

About the Author:

E. Reta Sober is an industry analyst at The Freedonia Group where she writes studies related to electrical equipment, machinery, and the automotive industry.