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Chemical Plants and Asbestos Exposure

The United States chemical industry generates roughly $486 billion and employs around 529,000 workers. The chemicals produced by these facilities can be broken down into four sectors including agricultural chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers), basic chemicals (chlorine, sulfuric acid), specialty chemicals (food additives, adhesives), and consumer chemicals (cleaning, makeup). While the plants are regulated by organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor, there was a time when the safety of workers was not investigated. Given the heat dangers of the plant, insulation was a vital material to be successful and safe. Chemical plants and asbestos exposure was common.

 

Asbestos was commonly used for insulation in industrial processes due to its heat-resistant properties. There are six main types of asbestos which include actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, tremolite, and chrysolite. The predominant type of asbestos that was used in chemical plants was chrysolite asbestos. This version of the mineral was used in chemical plants because it retained properties that were resistant to other acids and substances, making it a suitable fit for these plants. It was described by the New York Academy of Sciences that “large amounts of asbestos had been used, and evidence for high concentrations of airborne fibers in the past was available”. Unfortunately, there were multiple departments in which the asbestos insulation was taking place in the facility including the vessels, boilers, cement, and gaskets.

 

The workers who were believed to be most at risk of exposure were maintenance workers. This is due to the installation and removal of materials in multiple locations throughout the facility. In addition to the constant demolition of materials these maintenance workers were performing, they were required to wear “fire-resistant protective equipment” as described by the New York Academy of Sciences, which also contained asbestos. This was not uncommon at the time because asbestos had been used in fire-resistant blankets and clothing that were utilized by these facilities.

 

When it was discovered that asbestos was harmful to these individuals, as many workers began showing symptoms of mesothelioma and asbestosis, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration quickly asserted its authority. They established “safe” levels of fibers in the air as well as required these facilities to engage in equipment for their workers like protective gloves, goggles, and face shields. In addition to proper equipment, changes in the structure of these plants were required such as those described by the Cornell Law School:

 

“Local exhaust ventilation and dust collection systems shall be designed, constructed, installed, and maintained” “The employer shall establish regulated areas wherever airborne concentrations of asbestos”

Some of the companies facing backlash for their consistent use of asbestos include Olin and Oxychem. This is due to their refusal to update or renovate a major aspect of their plants regarding the production process. A large metal screen, serving as a protective sealant, that

resides inside of the tanks requires a new asbestos film when it becomes damaged or worn down. Workers are then required to “pressure-wash the old asbestos off, then dip the screen into an asbestos slurry. They bake the new asbestos onto the screen before returning it to service” (McGrory, 2022). While the asbestos remained wet for a period of time, the drying process was short to follow. When this occurs, the asbestos can easily roam into the air and enter the worker’s lungs. The company is additionally refusing to alter the current process due to the financial expense and claims that it “would not significantly improve worker health” (McGrory, 2022).

 

When these workers are exposed to asbestos, they are at risk of developing mesothelioma and asbestosis. Mesothelioma is a rare and vicious type of cancer that attacks the mesothelial tissue. This tissue can be found around vital organs like the lungs (most prevalent), heart, abdomen, and testicles (least prevalent). Unfortunately, there is a very short life span following diagnosis which is likely caused by the long latency period which is roughly 30-40 years. The American Cancer Society describes the average 5-year survival rate to be “about 30%” which in hand means “that people who have that cancer are, on average, about 30% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed”. Some symptoms that occur include chest pain, difficulty breathing, and persistent cough. The second disease workers are vulnerable to developing is asbestosis, also recognized as a chronic lung disease. This occurs when the asbestos fiber is released into the air and is inhaled, later creating scarring of the lungs. The damage makes it difficult to breathe for these patients and creates a persistent cough. While there is currently no cure for either of these illnesses, medical treatment is available to prohibit growth or ease symptoms.

 

Chemical Plant workers who have been exposed and experienced symptoms of an asbestos-related disease could be eligible for financial compensation. If you or someone you know has been affected by mesothelioma in the state of Pennsylvania, please visit The Halpern Law firm for a free consultation or call 1 (800) 505-6000 to turn today’s adversity into tomorrow’s justice

 

Sources:

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/12/07/1141020583/workers-asbestos-exposure-health-risks https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/2023-02/chemical_sector_profile_final_508_2022_0.pdf https://www.knaufnorthamerica.com/en-us/high-temp-equipment#:~:text=There’s%20a%20wide%20variety%20of,equipment%2C%20industrial%20ovens%20and%20more. https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1979.tb18713.x?sid=nlm%3Apubmed https://www.cancer.org/cancer/types/malignant-mesothelioma/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-statistics.html

https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/29/1910.1001#:~:text=Each%20person%20entering%20a%20regulated,cosmetics%20in%20the%20regulated%20areas.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15298660108984624

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11331993/#:~:text=The%20Occupational%20Safety%20and%20Health,workers%20and%20public%20health%20groups.

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