Brake dust and the greener Automobile
by Edward Martinez III
Having worked professionally for the environmental movement from 1980 to 1992 (and peripherally far longer) it was easy to get a tad complacent when it came to my knowledge of the threats that Human beings have blindly created for themselves over the millennia. I know quite a bit about climate change, toxic waste, species threats and issues related to a myriad of other challenges to the sustainability of our own species.
Being cocky is usually the first step toward a humbling correction in my experience and of course I was suitably put in my place a few years ago when I ran across a major global toxics issue that had quietly been flying just under the radar. Metaphors’ Like “the elephant in the room”, “hiding in plain sight” “the 800 pound gorilla” etc… are perfectly suited to the issue of the fine particulate dust ejected by every friction braking systems in use around the world since the dawn of the industrial age. That it was a MAJOR issue and that it had to a large degree escaped the attention of the nascent environmental movement of the 70’s was bad, that it continues to do so 40 years later borders on shameful. It’s really just a testament to our own limited peripheral vision – I fully accept that criticism ; “ownership” right.
Since Henry Ford started rolling out the model T with a friction braking system on it we have been quietly dispersing toxics into our air, on our land and in our water. Since President Eisenhower created the freeway system that made travel easy enough to create a boom in the automotive industry we have known that cars cause pollution, even though it was not until the late 60’’s that smog became so prevalent that we decided to do something about it. Since that time we have looked at the automobile pollution problem as a “tail pipe” issue with very good reason (remember the lovely shade of brown to the air above LA, Mexico City and other major urban centers). Once the air in these locations actually became dangerous we began taking steps (albeit grudgingly) to correct the problems associated with the internal combustion engine. From this perspective, things have significantly improved – still a long way to go but it’s better than it was because we applied available technology and good science to the problem; eliminating lead from gasoline, improving the carburetion of the engines, adding catalytic converters and generally improving the performance of the machine we nearly live in today.
Back to the present:
Having bought my Subaru wagon nearly new “some years” ago I decided that since I had for the first time in my life, a set of rims I deemed worth cleaning, I came to REALY dislike that brown crud that I knew came largely from my brakes wearing away. The stuff ate the chrome and dissolved the clear coat that protected the color on the inside of the spokes that made them look so nice ( a source of pride for someone that had rarely ever had sparkly anything).
The more time I spent trying in vain to keep them clean, the more interested I became in what would make the stuff so pervasive. In other words I began to look a bit closer into what chemical processes were going on with brake dust and why it was so incredibly destructive. Of course some things will take you a lot farther than you may want to go, and the more I learned about what comprised my brake pads the more alarmed I became. The Fact these things work as well as they do is a miracle of engineering but what they are made of is a toxic nightmare. The deeper I went into it, the more I realized that something needed to be done.
So what are we really talking about here. Let’s look at what we actually know - Brake pads are made from Lead, Asbestos, Antimony Trisulfide, Copper, Tin, Cast iron and Ceramics and sometimes Kevlar fibers, crumb rubber and other binders (not to forget all of the oxides that these materials become when they are ground to a micron sized particle and released into the air). There are also a host of other materials that NO ONE can get a hold of because they are protected under trade secret laws. OK, so now I am aware that the stuff I am grudgingly scrubbing off my rims is composed of many materials that are individually listed by the EPA as major carcinogens,,, Ever try to have a contractor remove that old stove vent pipe in your attic ? It is made from Asbestos and removing it now requires a hazmat permit and costly remediation. Just imagine my joy at this discovery. Starts making you consider whether having shiny cool rims is worth the exposure to these compounds. Needless to say my rims aint quite as clean as they used to be.
The next phase an ADD brain logically goes through is to start turning numbers around and around in your head until you have either run out of road or come to your destination,, here’s where I landed:
There are 900 million cars in the world as of 1994 (latest available global compilation). Each with 4 wheels (3.6 billion or so wheels). Each wheel with 2 pads,,, lets see that’s about 7.2 billion brake pads at say 1 pound each just for the sake of argument, (divided by a heavy ton which is 2400 pounds more or less) means that 14 years ago there were about 3 million tons of friction brake material on the roads at any given time. Cars replace these pads when they are ¾ worn out and even though there is really no way to average a wear cycle for cars (as some people drive a lot and my wife drives about 12 miles per week). Given the variables, it is still pretty safe to estimate that all 3 million tons of that material has since been replace at least twice since the 1994 stats were compiled,,, with me so far.
So let’s see that’s 6 million tons divided by .75 and the big number is that since 1994 - a bare minimum 4.5 million heavy tons of friction material have been blown onto every road surface on the planet,,, course I had to keep going as there are more than 5 million heavy truck s on the road each with 10 wheels each with up to 5 pads weighing as much as ten pounds each ,,, I got a headache at this point but the number is truly staggering when you consider that nearly all brake pads are between 5% and 15% copper, 5% asbestos (yes it’s still in there) and many other ingredients that are protected by trade secret laws but include Antimony Trisulfide which is a known carcinogen in even teeny lil quantities. I am not even including the cloud of brake dust ejected every time an passenger jet lands, or the farm equipment, trains and odd sized vehicles that have huge brakes on them. Now think that this has been going on virtually unchecked for 72 years and the numbers begin to crash my calculator. That and I don’t do exponents very well, just ask my high school math teacher – shell tell ya.
Shockin aint it.
Worse yet was a call I made to some old GreenPeace colleagues of mine that were absolutely gob stopped by the fact that we had not taken this one on more aggressively back in the early 80’s when asbestos was a main component of the things. I think we all sort wondered about it but it never made the priority list for campaign department; I think in part because there was simply no known way to fix it. I suspect that this is part and parcel of the reason it has not been taken on more aggressively in the legislature as well. There is legislation now in the California Senate to reduce the copper content of friction pads but since Copper is only one of many deadly compounds in these things I don’t hold much hope of the situation changing any time soon enough,,, don’t get me wrong I really applaud the effort (Cathleen Kehoe is the sponsor of SB 346 now under modification in the Senate which has reduction goals that extend out to 2032) but by that time the rivers and most of the Salmonids will have been cooked for ten years.
So here is how the stuff travels through our lil blue green marble. Say you are driving highway 17 and get behind a semi truck ( the ones with ten huge brake devices right). You see the brake lights go on around big moody curve and the truck begins to slow, as hopefully do you. What you don’t see is a cloud of brake dust fly off of each wheel and billow into the slip stream of the truck. You are behind the truck with your vent blowing cool in your face, listening to your tunes (doing our makeup or shaving and accessing your stock portfolio - don’t get me started). You get a very slight whiff of burnt something but don’t think too much about it. Please revue the ingredient list from above, as you are now sharing the interior of your car with all of em. Meanwhile the rest of the ejected particulate is so fine that it swirls around in the air until every single car and truck on the road has some of it in the air ducts. If you drive the hill a lot, it sticks to the interior of the vent pipes just like it does to your rims and continues to donate itself to your body (and your kids and pets etc…) ever thereafter.
When it finally does settle out of the air, it lands on the road surfaces until another car comes along and it becomes airborne again and you get another dose - just in case you missed it the first time. The rest of it blows off to the side of the road where it patiently awaits the first rainfall, building up in the dry periods and happily washing away when the rain comes. The rain channels it off the road and into culverts where it joins other culverts and then into the valleys and soil by the side of the road. If the rain is heavy enough the runoff meets other trickles and becomes a flow that eventually reaches a small stream. Small stream becomes big stream. Big stream becomes river. River becomes bigger river. Bigger river meets ocean. OK you knew this but you get that by the time river meets ocean, all that brake dust has concentrated - a lot - how much, no one seems to know precisely. OK so the dust that did not make it into the ocean has been filtered into the ground along every single road in the world – think of that when you drive by a food crop as in the Salinas Valley sometime (may give us something to think about when we define even Organic crops huh). When the stuff hits the ocean it does what any other pollutant does, it bio magnifies from teeny organism to bigger organism concentrating in apex species that we incidentally eat – had a tuna sandwich lately. What does not bio magnify settles to the bottom where it can be picked up by other organisms and the cycle repeats itself – the halibut I caught last week was delicious but I got some of my own brake dust back in the exchange – apex predator that I are.
Ok so that’s the cycle in broad terms. Strange thing is that this issue seems to have been given some thought over the years but as I said in earlier paragraphs never made the mainstream radar of the environmental orgs to a degree where they felt compelled to get it out to their constituencies as an issue… don’t know why exactly but that is why I am boring you with this very rambling dissertation on the topic.
As a child I was handed a copy of the Annapolis cadet code of honor which says roughly that if I am aware of a crime and do nothing about it, I become culpable in that crime. It made an impression on me and I have done my best to act when I become aware of something I can effect a change in.
When I was considering taking a proactive step to fix this debacle I ran the pitch past a few friends and found that there are many people out there with serious maladies we are just now beginning to find answers for. There are now numerous studies linking serious illness to people that live along heavily traveled transportation corridors and to the best of my investigation we are still looking at this ONLY as a tail pipe issue - again I think we may be missing something here. Heavy metals are now being identified as potential causes for all kinds of stuff that conventional medicine had no answers for as recently as ten years ago . We all used lead paint for eons before we found that it was a serious societal health problem and the stuff was phased out very quickly –course it remains in old houses for decades after that but at least we noticed it and took some action to remedy the situation and I hope that we can do the same for this one.
My experience with GreenPeace and the environmental movement as a whole was and still is that we tend to point our fingers at the offending industry and bang our heads on their door until they capitulate (or we get a headache and go away). This in my opinion merely causes the offending industry to entrench and circle their wagons so that we have to drag them kicking and screaming into some reasonable compromise (OK you can use a little lead). I am simply no longer satisfied with this approach for the following reasons. First of which is that when we force the industry onto the defensive it takes ten times longer to fix the problem that is at the root of the attack, resulting in that problem being drawn out for years longer than necessary. Second is that by attempting to shut the offending industry down, we cost our communities jobs and revenue that we need to keep our schools and other good stuff funded (they just move the industry to a country that don’t much care about it). Third is that by “going after” polluters we begin to look shrill and negative and I have recently come to dislike this tone, now that it is being used by those “on the other side of the isle” against ME (how dare they). As such, I have come to think that there simply must be a better way to remain focused on “the issue” and not on the industry that drives or contributes to it. Fourth is that if it’s the problem we want to solve it is in our best interest to find a cost effective (dare I say “profitable”) solution to it and then insist that industry use it,,, I call this proactive environmentalism and think it a far better tactical approach than yelling, boycotts and nasty ad campaigns - we can always revert to that angle if they refuse to even look at what we have come up with but that should be a last option not a first approach. It seems simply like a smarter tactical approach to environmental problems, and as such, a smarter and more direct path to what I want – which is to fix the central problem – as quickly as possible.
Last but not by any means least, I feel very strongly that there is now huge opportunity for us “greenies” to start new industries, create wealth and jobs right here in this neat country of ours; building the very solutions to problems we have been griping about since the 70’s . My strong feeling is that WE should get on these opportunities double quick so that we can change the face of heavy industry into something that resembles “sustainable”. If we are successful, the old dirty industries will either follow the lead or die off –“ask me if I will shed one tear for the demise of the oil and coal industry”, especially if it can be replaced by a conscious alternative that does not trash my environment for profit.
My next blog will be titled “OK genius” what’s the proactive solution to brake dust. I welcome all comments on this topic (good or bad) and you can hit my fritter account at glasspar1 (or email at email@example.com so fire away campers. Fear is for the weak minded and easily manipulated. We are a fundamentally remarkable species, capable of creating truly amazing things when we set our minds to it and that is my intention “for what it is worth”. So don’t tell me we can‘t make stuff here anymore – and don’t tell me it can’t be done either - I simply refuse to believe in “impossible” anymore.