Think twice or reduce your risk for exposure before dousing that brake rotor with this type of brake cleaner.

Former shop mechanic and Reddit user /u/Pollymath took to the /r/cars subreddit earlier last week to warn fellow Redditors and wrenchers alike of the harmful effects traditional Chlorinated Brake Cleaner can have on your quality of life, particularly increasing your risk for Parkinson’s disease.

You can read his post below.

It’s tradition and running gag for professional and amateur wrenchers, when literally anything needs cleaning, to grab a can of brake cleaner and spray the living heck out of the dirty area. Cheap, super effective, and found at any decent shop or garage, brake cleaner does do a good job cleaning and stripping a surface of grease, dirt, dust, and debris.

The active ingredient in traditional Brake Cleaner, almost 90 percent by volume in some cans, is Tetrachloroethylene.

Tetrachloroethlyene, AKA percholorethylene (or perc,) is a colorless synthetic liquid mainly used as an industrial solvent for degreasing metals and dry cleaning fabric. Because it’s an excellent solvent for organic materials, non-flammable, and quick to evaporate at room temperature, it’s the ideal solvent for the automotive industry.

The problem is most industrial solvents, chlorinated or non-chlorinated, are also Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. With low boiling points and quick evaporation characteristics, these chemical compounds make their way into our atmosphere, ultimately damaging the ozone.

Environment aside, according to Footbot.io,

Human exposure to VOCs can irritate the eyes, throat, and nose, as well as cause headaches, dizziness, and potentially lead to memory loss or visual impairment. They are also believed to contribute to ‘sick building syndrome.

The California Air Resources Board identified Tetrachloroethlyene as the most harmful of all VOCs and quickly banned most PERC based solvents for industrial and home use.

It’s why you cannot buy Chlorinated brake cleaner in California.

Solvent makers, in response to Tetrachloroethlyene-based solvents being banned in California, and to still cater to the rest of the United States, offer brake cleaners with Tetrachloroethlyene but also non-chlorinated versions with different amounts of specific solvents.

Keep in mind non-chlorinated brake cleaners still contain solvents with VOCs, but these VOCs are not banned in California.

Below is what CRC Industries offers as Brake Cleaners

  • Chlorinated,
  • Non-Chlorinated 50-state compliant
  • Non-Chlorinated low VOC
  • and Non-Chlorinated regular VOC

And here are the MSDS statements highlighting just the main active ingredients for each brake cleaner in the same order as mentioned above.

Chlorinated
Non Chlorinated 50-state compliant
Non Chlorinated Low VOC
Non Chlorinated Regular amount VOC

Tetrachloroethylene’s long-term effects as a carcinogen and its link to Parkinson’s disease

As listed on the MSDS for regular Brake Cleaner, Tetrachloroethylene is a Group 2A Carcinogen (= probably causes cancer.)

Tetrachloroethylene is linked to oesophageal cancer, cervical cancer, and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In animal studies, rats and mice developed liver and kidney tumors.

And, in a 2011 study published in the Annals of Neurology titled, “Solvent exposures and Parkinson disease risk in twins” they concluded that,

Ever exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE) was associated with significantly increased risk of Parkinson’s Disease (odds ratio [OR], 6.1; 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.2–33; p = 0.034.)

Keep in mind, using Brake Cleaner with trichloroethylene doesn’t mean you’ll get Parkinson’s Disease, merely that your risk of getting PD will increase significantly.

How can you protect yourself?

Even if you don’t live in California, choosing a California (50-state) compliant Brake Cleaner, while it won’t be as affective as regular brake cleaner, will reduce your exposure to harmful VOCs, including trichloroethylene.

If you’re going to use traditional Brake Cleaner with trichloroethylene anyway, spray in a well-ventilated area, spray from a distance (18-24 inches,) and maybe follow the recommendations as provided in the MSDS.

At the very least, wear gloves, eyewear, and hold your breath for a minute while spraying.

If you really want to be safe, besides gloves and glasses, wearing a respirator mask with organic vapor cartridges would reduce your exposure even more.

A setup, like the one below, is $15 for the mask and $25 for a pair of Organic Vapor filters. The filters last up to six months when first opened and should provide plenty of vapor protection when used every time you spray. There are also disposable options, mask and permanently affixed cartridges, that run you about $20.

Other shop mechanics might bust your **lls about wearing protective gear and you might be labeled as “that guy” but consider the alternative, an increased risk for Parkinson’s Disease.

If you want a good quality of life well into your retirement years and perhaps enjoy time with your grandchildren, some gloves and a mask, or choosing a less effective Brake Cleaner, isn’t too much of a burden, really.

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