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Think twice before squirting this ubiquitous solvent.

At my first (and last) real auto-shop job, our lead mechanic unleashed Brakleen on everything. Cleaning oil off the shop floor? Brakleen. Pulling road grime off the bottom of a car? Brakleen. Dirty plates after dinner? Brakleen. Wait, no. Don’t do that.

This story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Road & Track.

CRC Industries trademarked Brakleen in 1971. Sold in aerosol cans at the consumer level, it’s primarily composed of tetrachloroethylene (PERC). If the chemical sounds familiar, it should. It’s widely used in the dry- cleaning industry. While PERC is an extremely capable industrial cleaner, it’s very bad for you. So bad the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies it as “likely to be carcinogenic in humans by all routes of exposure.”


Brakleen is beloved by many mechanics and project-car lovers, of course. And it’s used for far more than just cleaning brakes. I asked an online group of mechanics how they used Brakleen beyond brake jobs. I received more than 300 replies. Mechanics, both amateur and professional, say they use it for cleaning oil messes in their shops, breaking down clothing stains, and killing insects. A few even joked it’s effective at finding cuts (please, don’t try that at home).

Chris Reddy, an environmental chemist who studies petroleum geochemistry and marine pollution, and has experience analyzing PERC, helped explain why Brakleen is so effective.

“It has a great affinity for dissolving a wide range of different greases and oils,” Reddy said. “It’s not surprising that this is being embraced [by mechanics]—it’s been embraced by other industries ... because it has a great capacity to dissolve and remove unwanted materials from a piece of metal.”

Reddy explained that if you have the ability to choose a different cleaner, you really should.

“I’m kind of surprised it’s still being sold. It’s a pretty potent chemical....It’s not worth using because there are other formulations that are less potentially harmful. That’s what they did with the non-chlorinated formula.”

Unfortunately, the non-chlorinated formula, a mixture primarily made of acetone and heptane, isn’t nearly as strong as the PERC version. The red can is the common favorite among consumers, except for where it’s not allowed to be sold: New Jersey and California.

“My gut feeling is, if you ask the old-timers, they’d probably say ‘it ain’t like it used to be.’ ... The one with PERC in it would be superior,” Reddy said.

Chlorinated Brakleen is even more dangerous for welders. When heated to high temperatures, the cleaner can release toxic gases like hydrogen chloride and phosgene, according to a Popular Science article from 2009. That article referenced a story in American Iron Magazine where a welder working on semis “came close to a small puff of white smoke and immediately almost passed out” while welding Brakleen- coated materials. Feeling exhausted and sick, the welder Steve Garn was later admitted to an intensive care unit.

Garn suffered from a low oxygen count and experienced general fatigue for over a year afterward. Unsurprisingly, he no longer uses chlorinated Brakleen.

“If I get near [chlorinated Brakleen] I get very nauseous. I use non- chlorinated instead,” Garn said. In retelling the episode, Garn stresses a new mantra: read safety labels in full.

Of course, CRC’s cleaner probably isn’t the most dangerous tool in your average auto shop. At least, not when used responsibly as brake cleaner. But for those of us using this stuff to clean upholstery, wipe down welding materials, and take out wasps, it might be time to find a new weapon of choice.

 

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I remember when the chlorinated Brakleen stopped being available... it was AMAZING stuff. It's great we live in a Country were things like this are Regulated.
 

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Great for softening hard as a rock fuel lines to slip off filler neck when removing diesel fuel tank on my F250 but never use it around o-rings when cleaning in tank filters because they too will swell up. Just like many medications the off label uses sometimes surpass the intended use.
 
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I use the autozone break cleaner to clean guns, among other things. It rocks! Its the only one I have found that doesnt leave a moisture residue when it evaporates.
 

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As a previous auto tech, I went through so much of that stuff. It was used for freaking everything.
 

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As a previous auto tech, I went through so much of that stuff. It was used for freaking everything.
i am still doing this kind of sh**....
this thread really helped me a lot.
i really love the fact that OP explained why we shouldn't do it with exact data and facts. not just "because"
thanks a lot
 

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2005 Elise LSS Saffron Yellow
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I've gotten more careful with it after causing myself liver damage with tricloroethane exposure in a summer job in the '80s. It fixed itself eventually, but was a good lesson. That said, yes, red can brakleen is a wonderful thing and I use it regularly. Just:

1. don't breathe it more than you have to
2. Don't get it on your skin any more than you have to, and if you do, wipe/evaporate it off as quickly as possible
3. Don't get it in a cut (it stings anyway)
4. If you're cleaning something you'll be soldering or welding, let it dry thoroughly first (trust me, you don't want to breath the halogen fumes that come off this stuff when it gets hot - see also teflon fry pans and carbon tet fire extinguishers).

Worth mentioning that it's probably better to inhale than brake dust, so definitely use for the on-label purpose.
 

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Well damn... You had do state what I already knew, all of it. I wear gloves now, but they only last a little while with this stuff. I use it sparingly, but if I know I am going to run through some I use a good fan and just try to get the job done and out of Dodge.

I mean I tried other stuff, and well, nothing works like the red can. I wish I was more careful through my 20s and 30s. Hell, when I am in the trenches I still use it without a glove. Life outcomes is often from initial as well as accumulated exposures.

I guess I realize my hobby has quite a few risks, I say I accept them, but I haven't paid the price yet. time tells all tales. I know my exposure is not as high as a working mechanic or autoparts warehouse stocker. I think of all the off gassing from tires etc... Honestly car culture itself is quite destructive.

I now have this inner narrative that I am some old salty artisan dude with a Red Barchetta, always working late at night perfecting his machine. My own personal "Beast of Turin"

There simply are not many things I would rather be doing than knocking about in the garage, cleaning some grimy thing with Brakekleen, thinking my precious will be pleased with my efforts. heh
 
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