Brake Cleaner Can Kill: When to Take Safety Warnings Seriously

A cautionary tale of how not all warnings labels are needless legalese.

I’ve been careless at times. We all have. I try to address safety issues in posts about my projects, but it is all too easy to ignore the boring safety lecture and skip ahead to laughing about the gas-powered bumper-car rollovers, or Gocke shooting bottle rockets at my head. (References to some of the TE videos, if you’re not familiar).

Every now and then, I come across someone’s story in which a glossed-over safety warning had very real consequences. More often than not, they involve things not so unlike what you and I do all the time.

In this particular incident, a welder destroyed his body and nearly killed himself with simple brake cleaner.

Brake cleaner is a concoction of potent solvents used for, among other things, dissolving grease and brake-lining material that’s caked onto brake-system components. The vapors can be harmful on their own even without excess heat or other contributing factors. In this case, a small amount of brake cleaner was heated in an argon rich environment—which is to say it was present on metal that was being TIG welded—and broke down into several extremely poisonous gasses including hydrogen chloride and phosgene.

Does the warning label say that this can happen? Definitely. Was the welder being careless? Sort of, but not really. When you use these chemicals all the time, they become as commonplace as a wrench or screwdriver. If you spend much time in a shop, carburetor cleaner and brake cleaner become everyday fixes for a variety of problems, just like any other tool. You absolutely will start to take them for granted. And that is exactly why this man’s story matters.

As a result of the exposure to the poisonous gas, he is left with severely scarred sinuses, kidney damage and emphysema, as well a raft of health problems yet to be nailed down. He is lucky to even be alive.

This article from American Iron Magazine has all of the details.

So remember, many of the tools we use are very helpful, but they are also potentially very dangerous. Take a moment to snap yourself out of the comfort zone you’ve reached with the equipment you use and remind yourself just how badly things could go in an instant of carelessness.