Mechanic and woman looking at car engine

We all know mechanics have a hard job. It’s dirty, loud and full of dangers. Working under vehicles, using heavy machinery and power tools, plus being on their feet all day and straining their backs and muscles; mechanics face a number of occupational hazards on a daily basis. But there’s more to their job than just the physical risk.

When you think of an auto body repair shop, you might not think of chemicals. It’s hard to imagine anything scientific about a mechanic’s work. However, there are quite a few liquids that go into an automobile and other moving machinery (bikes, ATVs, etc.) and those liquids contain harsh chemicals that can have extremely negative effects on mechanics and those who breathe around them on a daily basis.

Mechanics are exposed to a wide range of chemicals that include heavy metals such as the ones contained in brake fluids, detergents, lubricants, degreasers, paints, metal cleaners, solvents and fluids. Constant exposure to these chemicals will lead to chronic poisoning.

Antiknock Agents

An antiknock agent is a gasoline additive. It reduces engine knocking and increases fuel’s octane rating. Antiknock agents are usually made up of methylpentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl (MMT) or ketone solvents like methyl isobutyl keton. These ingredients cause eye irritation, dizziness, breathing problems, nausea and headaches. Studies have shown that long-term exposure to MMT results in damage to the kidneys and liver. Manganese (an ingredient of MMT) can be a potent neurotoxin when inhaled and is a serious concern for auto body repair shop mechanics. Studies have also shown that fine particles containing manganese can be absorbed into a mechanic’s blood through the lungs with excessive exposure to the toxin; and once the manganese is in the blood it can be carried directly into the central nervous system.

Manganese exposure can lead to a progressive neurological syndrome known as manganism. Manganism symptoms include impaired motor skills and coordination, hyper-irritability, nervousness and psychiatric disturbances (hallucinations). Manganism is often confused with Parkinson’s disease. Occupational exposure to manganese (like a mechanic in an auto body repair shop) over 5-20 years has been linked to decreases in neurological functions.


Asbestos dust comes from brake drum cleaning and processing operation in an auto body repair shop. Asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma, a serious cancer.

Mesothelioma has been shown to only be caused by exposure to asbestos. Even in small doses, asbestos can have extremely negative health effects and lead to mesothelioma. When asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they travel through the lungs and become lodged in the pleura, the membrane that lines the lungs.

Diagnosing mesothelioma is extremely difficult, and often symptoms won’t show until 30-50 years after asbestos exposure. And the symptoms that are reported are often associated with other medical issues and so are dismissed as something less serious. However, after working for a long period of time in an autobody repair shop, mechanics who report said symptoms should consider the likelihood that they have mesothelioma.

Shortness of breath: If a mechanic is experiencing shortness of breath, it could be due to a buildup of fluid in the pleural lining or a tumor in the lungs. Both are results of mesothelioma caused by asbestos.

Swelling of the face and arms: If a mechanic is experiencing this symptom, he should visit his doctor immediately. Swelling of the face, arms and neck is a sign that the cancer is spreading beyond the mesothelium and reaching other areas of the body.

Chest/back pain: This is a symptom that could go undetected for years. Because mechanics are manual laborers, they often ignore physical pain or take it for granted, stating it’s just “part of the job.” However, a buildup of liquid in the pleural lining of the lungs can create the sensation of fullness and put pressure on localized areas of the chest cavity and sometimes the lower back. Pain on the right side of the chest and back is a red flag for mesothelioma as it tends to target the right side of the lungs 60% of the time and rarely infects both sides.

Lead Dust and Fumes

Exposure to lead dust and fumes leads to chronic poisoning. Repairing radiators, using paints and lubricants, welding and handling storage batteries are the main culprits for lead exposure in autobody repair shop workers.

There is no cure for lead poisoning. When lead is absorbed into the body via inhalation or absorption into the skin, it can seriously hinder the body’s neurological development. In adults, approximately 30%-40% of inhaled lead stays in the lungs.  Symptoms of lead poisoning differ for each individual, but early signs of exposure to lead may include intermittent abdominal pain, muscle pain, nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite, depression and constipation. Because these symptoms are so vague, lead poisoning is often not diagnosed until it’s too late.

Chronic poisoning, as would be the case with auto body repair shop workers, affects multiple symptoms in the body. The three main areas affected are neuromuscular, gastrointestinal and neurological. Loss of short-term memory and concentration as well as depression and loss of coordination, numbness and tingling extremities are obvious signs of chronic lead poisoning. For serious long-term exposure cases, a blue line along the gums and a bluish, black edge to the teeth are visible.

Solvents & Diesel Exhaust Fumes

Exposure to solvents such as benzene and its homologues (toluene and xylene to name a few) can lead to hematological changes. Non-toxic solvents do not exist, and auto body repair shop workers are at risk working with such materials every day.

Mechanics are also at an increased risk for organic brain damage. Inhaling diesel exhaust fumes can cause serious health issues in workers. While there are non-cancer related illness to chronic exposure to diesel fumes (asthma, airway restriction, immunological and allergenic reactions), the majority of long-term effects reported after exposure to diesel exhaust fumes is an increased risk of lung cancer and mutations in the body.

Small particles in diesel exhaust are easily inhaled and deposited into the lungs. Short-term health effects are often misdiagnosed or seen as symptoms from another illness, not diesel exhaust fumes. However, they should not be ignored or dismissed by auto body repair shop workers: vomiting, feeling lightheaded, headache, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, numbness, tightness of the chest, wheezing.

Find out more about indoor air quality solutions for auto body shops and garages.