Asbestos Exposure in Michigan Automotive Plants

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If you work in the automotive industry, then you are among workers who have a higher-than-average risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. In Michigan, the heart of the Rust Belt of America, asbestos exposure rates are particularly high. Michigan was historically one of the top producers of asbestos-included automotive materials in the country. It was not until the 1980s that the US government started regulating asbestos in the automotive industry, meaning that many automotive workers were—and still are—at risk.

In this article, we’ll review a brief history of the automobile industry in Michigan, some of the highest-risk parts and tasks associated with asbestos exposure, basic facts about asbestos-related diseases, as well as what to do if you are or ever have been an automotive worker in the state of Michigan.

Michigan’s Role in the Automotive Industry

In 1903, Henry Ford founded the automotive industry in Detroit, making Michigan a focal point for other major industries worldwide. Ford led at the forefront of assembly line production in general, and automobile manufacturing in particular. Soon enough, Michigan became home to the Big Three—Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. These true giants of industry are still the biggest automobile companies in America today, having employed millions of American workers since the founding of the industry.

Asbestos has also been found in plants owned and operated by each of these companies, amongst many other automobile companies.

Asbestos Exposure in Michigan Automotive Plants

Since the early twentieth century, asbestos has been a mainstay in Michigan automobile manufacturing. A naturally occurring fibrous mineral, asbestos has long been prized for its extraordinary heat and chemical-resistant properties. Due to constant friction and wear on automobile parts, the material seemed to be an ideal solution for extending the longevity of:

  • clutches
  • brake pads
  • linings
  • spark plugs
  • gaskets
  • transmission components
  • other automotive parts

While asbestos has been causally linked to adverse health conditions since the first half of the twentieth century, it was not entirely clear how deadly the material could be until much too late. Asbestos-related diseases can take many years, up to five decades, to develop into noticeable symptoms. This, coupled with the relatively late action taken by the government to regulate asbestos, means that for many long-term auto plant workers, the damage has already been done. Those who have worked at auto plants before the 1990’s are most at risk. This does not negate risk for younger automotive workers, however.

Vintage vehicles still contain high amounts of asbestos. Brakes historically contained up to 50% asbestos in their anti-friction materials. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that asbestos brake manufacturing declined in Michigan. In 2004, it still wasn’t clear if brakes made with asbestos were being manufactured stateside – but they were, and still are being imported. Imports of asbestos-containing parts doubled between 1990 and 1994 and have continued to rise despite thousands of deaths. Numerous aftermarket parts also circulate today, all containing asbestos in their materials and hence also carrying the risk of exposure.

Occupations Most at Risk

Automotive occupations at risk for asbestos exposure include but are not limited to:

  • Servicing vintage vehicles
  • Replacing damaged parts
  • Performing brake and clutch work
  • Installing automotive parts on an assembly line
  • Cleaning automotive facilities

Since asbestos is a fibrous material, it easily disintegrates and becomes dislodged from automobile parts over time. This material settles into the dust and air surrounding a work area, putting mechanics and manufacturers at risk of inhaling or even ingesting the fine, fibrous dust. Asbestos also clings to hair, skin, and clothing, putting the family and friends of automotive workers at risk as well.

Diseases from Asbestos Exposure in Michigan Automotive Plants

More than one hundred deaths are associated with asbestos exposure each year in Michigan alone. Respiratory cancer rates in the state are 8% higher than the national average. Wayne County, Oakland County, and Macomb County are the most affected counties in Michigan. There have been at least 1,386 deaths due to mesothelioma in Michigan to date, with an additional 202 or more asbestosis deaths. These statistics may under-represent the reality of the situation, as mesothelioma deaths were not recorded by the government until 1999.

Mesothelioma is the most common cancer caused by asbestos, and while it most frequently affects the lungs, it can also occur in the abdomen, heart, or testicles. Other diseases caused by this carcinogenic mineral include:

In addition to cancers caused by asbestos, automotive industry workers may also be at risk of having or developing non-malignant conditions. These include: Asbestosis, or a scarring of the lungs Atelectasis, leading to potential lung collapse A build up in the lungs, called pleural plaques Excess fluid accumulation near the heart or abdomen Inflammation of the chest and lung area, called pleurisy

All of this lethal risk adds up. Michigan ranks as the 10th highest state in the country for asbestos exposure-related deaths. This unfortunate ranking is due in large part to the proud but imperfect history of Michigan’s Big Three manufacturers of the automotive industry.

What to Do if You Have Been Exposed to Asbestos

We’re here to support you if you have worked in the automotive industry and believe you may have been exposed. Your first call to action is this: seek out regular medical screening for mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other asbestos-related health conditions. Should you have a documented condition, early medical treatment will help you buy time – while providing the court with proper evidence of your illness.

Thousands of automotive plant workers have filed lawsuits on behalf of themselves and their families in the state of Michigan. Many have been awarded record-breaking verdicts. Due to the latent nature of asbestos, your exposure may have occurred yesterday, or even decades ago. No matter what, it’s up to you to pursue fair representation and compensation for the great harm this carcinogen poses to auto workers. But you don’t have to go it alone. Reach out to our mesothelioma lawyers today for a free case evaluation if you believe you are at risk.