On the Road to a Non-Poisonous Future: How Close Are We After Five Decades?

On the Road to a Non-Poisonous Future: How Close Are We After Five Decades?

With the third decade of the 21st century looming over us and 1980 nearly half a century ago, it seems fitting to look back at the last five decades to see just how much the auto industry has changed; from sustainable, eco-conscious, and even vegan-friendly cars incorporating recycled materials to a partially automated driving experience, it’s safe to say that the intense emphasis today on reliability and quality is more critical than ever.

From advanced safety systems to emissions control, and smoother shifting under all conditions, new technology has changed the way we drive immeasurably over the last 50 years.  In fact, the industry as we know it today is so very different from what has come before.

The health effects caused by chemicals that were typically used in car manufacturing prior to 1980 convinced carmakers to seek safe alternatives

While there are numerous substances in vehicles manufactured prior to 1980  that can lead to health and environmental problems, those with known toxicity, persistence, and tendency to build up in people and the environment include asbestos, manganese, polyvinyl chloride, brominated flame retardants, and lead.

Cars from the 1950s through the 1980s contained an increasing percentage of lead, used as solder for electrical connections, to seal radiator seams, and to fill and repair body dents. Lead poisoning can cause severe mental and physical impairment, increased risk of high blood pressure, and kidney damage. Back in the day, cars also contained plastics, and many of these older plastic formulations can contain polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a carcinogen banned from widespread use in 1973.

Another highly toxic substance found in all older automobiles is asbestos, a highly carcinogenic mineral that has been proven to cause lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Due to its high tensile strengths, wear and friction characteristics, asbestos was used frequently throughout the automobile industry prior to the late 1970s to protect parts that are constantly subjected to heat and friction like brakes, clutches, and gaskets.

Denial was the blunder that cost thousands of lives

Since the 1980s, automakers have contended with a high number of claims because they manufactured, used, and sold automobile parts containing asbestos, although they had extensive knowledge of the deadly hazards of asbestos. Yet, favoring profits over the health of workers, these corporations waited decades to provide warnings to workers and to the general public. In some cases, the warnings of the potential risks involved were never provided.

When scattered reports on the health risks of asbestos emerged in the U.S. the control over the information flow became a top priority for the automotive industry. Some major suppliers of asbestos-containing products concealed medical documents and research that may have promoted safe work practices. Others quickly fired doctors who submitted reports on the health hazards of asbestos and asked that companies reevaluate their health and safety guidelines. In 1935, William S. Simpson, the General Manager of Raybestos Division, wrote in a letter to a Johns Manville attorney, “the less said about asbestos, the better off we are”.  However, these attempts to dismiss a devastating health threat like asbestos exposure did not go on for long.

At the end of the 1990s, one of the country’s largest automakers, Raybestos/Raymark Industries, Inc., was under government-sponsored bankruptcy thanks to the lingering financial troubles in the form of asbestos lawsuits. The pain was plentiful. Claimants alleged that their health problems were a direct result of exposure to asbestos-containing products manufactured, distributed, and/or sold by the company based out of Stratford, Connecticut.

By 2020, there have been significant improvements across the auto industry, especially on the use of hazardous chemicals

Needless to say, we really appreciate the advances that the automotive industry has made since way back in the ’50s. The last decades gave us some of the most important new automotive techniques, features, and practices that have gone on to define the industry and laid the foundations for even more innovations in the future.

Today, because of the concern over the long-term availability of asbestos health risks, a number of researches have been on to discover eco-friendly material replacements for asbestos. Increasing environmental awareness has triggered a pattern shift towards designing materials that are compatible with the environment. Asbestos can be replaced by a mixture of alternative fibers such as mineral fibers, cellulose, agricultural waste, aramid, PAN, glass, steel, and copper fibers. Formulations made by varying compositions of filler, fiber, different binders like phenolic resin, epoxy resin, were also studied and the effect on the performance of brake pads showed promising results comparable to commercial samples.

With growing concerns of climate change and environmental degradation, sustainability has become the top priority, along with decoupling CO2 emissions and developing eco-friendly materials. Subsequently,   more and more car manufacturers have introduced new manufacturing methods to reduce both the emissions from their factories, and from the cars themselves. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, emissions from factories and automobiles in the United States today are more than 50% lower than what they were in 1970.

The Earth is a place worth fighting for, and more than ever we need a focus on policies for sustainable transportation, road safety, clean fuels and vehicles, and equitable urban development.  Our children deserve to grow up in a safe, healthy, and secure environment.

About the author:

Treven Pyles is the Administrative Director at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. a law firm based in Birmingham, Alabama focused on helping those who struggle with severe illnesses as a result of exposure to toxic substances and the use of defective products with the purpose of obtaining financial recoveries.


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