Classic Cars and Cancer: Your Restoration Project Might Be Killing You

Restoring a classic car can be an extremely stressful and time-consuming endeavor. However, driving a car you built by hand can be one of the most rewarding experiences known to humankind. At least the kind of humankind that like cars. Unfortunately, though, some unforeseen dangers are involved with working on a classic car. Outside of the obvious things like properly supporting a vehicle and wearing personal protective equipment, there are a couple of other dangerous parts of working with an old car.

Asbestos and other toxic chemicals in components of classic cars

A tan 1953 Austin-Healey 100 at a 2017 German classic-car rally
1953 Austin-Healey 100 | Rust/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The world has certainly come a long way in terms of the use of toxic materials in the production of vehicles. However, you can’t change the past. According to Tirebuyer, there is a multitude of things to look out for when working on an older car.

Asbestos is one of the biggest things to consider. Asbestos was known as the “miracle mineral” or “miracle fiber” back in the old days. Unfortunately, we now know that miracle is the last word it should be associated with. Asbestos is known to cause lung cancer, and it’s all over classic cars. Here are some places you may find asbestos on older vehicles:

  • Clutch linings
  • Brake pads
  • Hood liners
  • Transmission plates
  • Cabin insulation
  • Gaskets

Asbestos wasn’t regulated in the U.S. until the 1980s. So, many old cars still have it all the way up until the 1990s. There’s no safe level of asbestos, and even the tiniest bit in your lungs can lead to diseases like mesothelioma, a severe lung cancer with a minimal survival rate.

Junkyard parts surrounding a rusted old car in a scrapyard
Rusted old classic car at a junkyard | Sean Stratton via Unsplash

Another common thing to watch out for in cars from the 1950s through the early 1970s is toxic plastics. Before regulation in the early ‘70s, many manufacturers used plastics that could contain toxins, mainly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs have been linked to cancer, reproductive issues, neurological effects, and immune system problems. PCBs may be found in these components in classic cars:

  • Headliners
  • upholstery
  • Dashboards
  • Seat components

Many old vehicles also use lead paint

A technician in a white suit bending over the spray paint on the side of a car.
Painting a car | David Porter/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Lead was another substance that continued to be used in all sorts of products, including paint, despite knowing how dangerous it is. Benjamin Franklin even wrote a letter warning of lead poisoning in 1786. However, it continued to appear in products, including car paint, for nearly 200 more years.

In 1978, the U.S. Government banned the use of lead in most products. However, some sources say that automotive and industrial manufacturers were excluded from this ruling. So, it’s best to play it safe no matter what year your project car is from if you’re planning on doing body or paintwork.

However, it’s also good practice to wear a respirator any time you’re sanding or working with paint in general. The effects of lead poisoning can be extremely harmful and fatal, and there is no known cure. Furthermore, like asbestos, there is no “safe amount” of lead to let into your body. Any amount can be harmful to your health, so take proper precautions.

Project cars can be a fantastic time, and working on cars yourself is a fun and rewarding hobby. However, it is important that you take these potential risks into consideration alongside all other associated safety risks with working on cars. After all, it could cost you your life.

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