Asbestos in the Chemical Industry

James F. Humphreys & Associates, L.C. has represented many victims of asbestos related disease, such asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs), lung cancer; and mesothelioma (a rare and fatal cancer almost always caused by exposure to asbestos). Given our location in the Kanawha Valley, one of the major centers of the chemical industry in this country, we are all too familiar with the risks of asbestos exposure among chemical workers and their families.

Because of its resistance to heat and chemicals, and its insulating properties, asbestos was widely used at chemical plants for thermal insulation, gaskets, packing material and protective clothing. Asbestos pipe covering, blocks and cement were used to cover pipelines, storage tanks, distillation columns, chemical reactors, pumps, valves, and incinerators. Asbestos pads were widely used in laboratories and electrical equipment used in control rooms may also have had asbestos components. Although non-asbestos materials are now used for these purposes, the chemical industry remains a major user of asbestos because asbestos is still widely used in making chlorine.

Photo from Pixabay

Chlorine is one of the most important industrial chemicals and the United States produces about 14 million metric tons per year. Most chlorine is generated through the electrolysis of brine (salt water), a process that uses electricity to separate brine into chlorine, caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and hydrogen, all of which are valuable commodities. This process occurs in vessels known as electrolytic cells, or simply cells. There are three commonly used technologies for electrolysis, known respectively as mercury amalgam, asbestos diaphragms and ion membranes. The most modern approach, which uses ion membranes made from polymers (plastics), is safer for workers and better for the environment, but many older plants still operate electrolytic cells which use mercury or asbestos.  Currently, about 60% of the chlor-alkali industry in the United States uses asbestos diaphragms in chlorine production.

In the United States, about 15 chemical plants still use asbestos in electrolytic cells used to make chlorine. These plants are owned by three companies, Westlake/Axiall Corporation, Olin Corporation/DOW, and Occidental . Asbestos diaphragms, which separate the negative and positive electrodes, and prevent the products of electrolysis from coming into contact with each other, have to be replaced on a frequent basis. According to the EPA, a chemical plant using asbestos diaphragm technology will use about 5 to 25 tons of raw asbestos per year to make diaphragms. Prior to the early 1970s, asbestos diaphragms used for chlorine production consisted of sheets of pure asbestos. By the early 1990s, most of these traditional asbestos diaphragms had been replaced by polymer-modified asbestos (PMA) diaphragms that were 75% asbestos by weight.  In 2015, chlorine production accounted for about 90% of the 358 tons of asbestos imported into the United States, making the chemical industry the primary importer of asbestos.   

Older plants can be converted from asbestos diaphragm cells to membrane cells, but the conversion represents  a significant investment of time and money. Not surprisingly, companies are reluctant to shut down or retrofit older plants as long as they are still profitable. Absent legislation that restricts or bans using asbestos, these financial considerations mean that asbestos will continue to be used in the chemical industry for some time to come.

Widespread and continuing use of asbestos in this industry presents a significant threat to public health. People who installed, repaired, replaced or removed asbestos containing materials at chemical plants, or cleaned up after these tasks, were exposed to airborne fibers.  Workers who did not have hands on contact with asbestos could be exposed if they worked in close proximity to other people who did because of the ability of fibers to drift or be carried into other areas.  Even family members who washed   the clothes of people who worked at chemical plants could have second hand exposure to asbestos carried home from work. Because of these exposures, many people who worked at chemical plants or their family members have developed asbestos related diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. 

If you or a loved one has developed a serious asbestos related disease because of someone else’s negligence, please contact us at 304-881-0652 (local) or 877-341-2595(toll free) for a free initial consultation.  You may also reach us at our website, www. jfhumphreys.com

Sources

Bill Walsh, Healthy Building Network, “PVC’s Asbestos & Mercury Problems,” October 3, 2016, https://healthybuilding.net/blog/220-pvcs-asbestos-mercury-problems

Pat Rizzuto, “EPA Asbestos Review May Trigger Probe of Chlorine Industry,” September 13, 2016, https://www.bna.com/epa-asbestos-review-n57982076918

Wikipedia, “Chlorine Production,”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlorine_production 

“Chlorine—The Essential Chemical Industry,” www.essentialchemicalindustry.org/chemicals/chlorine.html

The Chlorine Institute, “Chlorine Manufacture,” https://www.chlorineinstitute.org/about-us/ viewed online 6/25/18

Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, U.S. EPA, “Preliminary Information on Manufacturing, Processing, Distribution, Use, and Disposal: Asbestos,” February 2017, available online at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-02/documents/asbestos.pdf 

William Stadig, “Chlor-Alkali Producers Evaluate Safer Alternatives to Asbestos,” Chemical Processing March 1993 at 41 to 46 available online at https://inis.iaea.org/search/search.aspx?orig_q=RN:25011725

Britt Erickson, “Asbestos: Still a Global  Menace,” Chemical & Engineering News, Vol. 94, Issue 47, November 28, 2016, available online at https://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i47/Still-global-menace.html      

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