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Auto industry delayed asbestos warnings by six years

November 20th, 2006

The scientist who wrote new safety guidelines to inform auto repair workers about the dangers of asbestos exposure was pressured by a federal official to revise his safety recommendations. Critics have alleged that former Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) chief John Henshaw was acting under pressure from auto manufacturers when he requested the changes. The new advisory was written after a six-year struggle to inform auto workers about the health risks they face from asbestos-containing brakes.

The author of the new safety warnings, Ira Wainless, was asked by Henshaw to include data from studies paid for by the auto industry which said that brakes with asbestos did not pose a risk to mechanics. Henshaw is a former employee of ChemRisk and Exponent, two companies which have received more than $21 million in contributions from General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler over the last six years to oppose asbestos and mesothelioma lawsuits filed by workers.

Even though Wainless’ safety guidelines listed dozens of studies which contradicted the industry’s claims, he was told that he would be given a 10 day suspension if the changes were not made. Wainless refused, although so far, the study is still on the OSHA website.

The effort to create new safety guidelines for auto workers began in 2001, when a Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigation uncovered high levels of asbestos exposure among workers in several cities. Prolonged exposure to asbestos can lead to a mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the lungs, heart or abdomen. The average life expectancy for patients who receive a mesothelioma diagnosis is only one to five years.

According to the newspaper’s investigation, many auto workers falsely believed that asbestos-containing products had been banned in the U.S. Consequently, they were unaware of their risk of developing mesothelioma symptoms. In response, new safety warnings were proposed in order to alert mechanics of the dangers of asbestos-containing brake pads and advise them of precautions to take in order to minimize exposure.

To fight the new regulations from being enacted, the auto industry filed several lawsuits and conducted numerous studies which claimed that the asbestos in brake pads posed no health risk to workers. These efforts delayed the new warnings for six years before they were finally written.

Dr. Michael Harbut, a mesothelioma and asbestos expert, says that the auto industry’s claims about the safety of asbestos-containing brake pads are totally false. “Asbestos causes cancer, whether it is pulled out of a mountain, scraped off a steam pipe or shed from a brake shoe,” he says. “To withhold these warnings to mechanics who have no knowledge of asbestos or believe it’s banned in unconscionable.”

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