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Swimming in asbestos? The real story of chlorine manufacturing

On Behalf of | Nov 23, 2022 | Mesothelioma/Asbestos-Related Illness

The United States, unlike dozens of countries around the world, has yet to enact a total ban on asbestos. We know the mineral is a deadly carcinogen, but chemical lobbyists have successfully blocked all legislative efforts to pass a full and complete ban. At this point, the mineral serves primarily in one key industry – chlorine manufacturing.

Thanks to the efforts of their lobbyists and their promises to maintain strict safety standards, chlorine manufacturers continue to import and use hundreds of tons of asbestos. However, a recent report by ProPublica revealed that the reality of life at those chlorine companies may not have lived up to the fancy words they used to keep the asbestos flowing.

The asbestos is only wet until it dries

As ProPublica noted, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) once again stands ready to ban asbestos. But this isn’t the first time it has tried, and the attorneys general of 12 states, as well as a number of chemical companies, have returned to old arguments that a ban would impose an unreasonable burden on their businesses. Chief among those companies are two chlorine manufacturers, OxyChem and Olin Corp.

Nearly all of Europe and dozens of other countries have banned asbestos use. Still, these chlorine manufacturers continue to use the carcinogen in their older plants. They use it primarily to coat the screens that prevent explosions after manufacturers separate the chlorine in salt water from hydrogen and caustic soda.

When the asbestos on the screens wears down, the manufacturers must remove the screens, remove the asbestos, and coat the screens with new asbestos. However, the process might begin according to the standards set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but it certainly hasn’t always ended in compliance with those standards:

  • The employees who worked with the asbestos screens received special training and knew to wear protective gear. They did this while working with the asbestos.
  • They would keep the asbestos wet as they sprayed the old screens with high-pressure water cannons to remove the asbestos.
  • They would then dip the screens into wet asbestos mixtures and bake the mixture onto the screens until it hardened.
  • The problem was that the asbestos that blasted off the old screens flew all over the walls and ceiling. Though it started wet, it eventually dried out. Once it dried, it would flake and float in the air. Employees recalled working with asbestos in the plant was like “swimming in [the] stuff.”
  • Asbestos became a larger problem since employees would catch it on their clothing, and the company would open the plant’s windows as temperatures hovered around 100 degrees. This allowed asbestos to escape the windows.

ProPublica noted that it only received information about life inside the chlorine plant after the plant had shut down. This meant that the 18 workers ProPublica interviewed no longer worried they might lose their jobs or workers’ compensation as retaliation for sharing their stories.

ProPublica also asked the chlorine manufacturers to share their sides of the story, and they declined to meet for interviews. Instead, OxyChem sent a PR statement declaring that the company prioritized employee safety. Olin didn’t respond. Meanwhile, the Chlorine Institute and American Chemistry Council supported the chlorine manufacturers. So, too, did the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which argued that asbestos use is safe because it is tightly regulated.

Lives are at stake

Asbestos exposure continues to claim thousands of American lives every year. Asbestos can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and other cancers, such as the rare cancer known as mesothelioma. And reports like the one that ProPublica published continue to show how manufacturers prioritize profits over human lives, despite their claims to the contrary. ProPublica published a snippet of an internal communication in which chlorine manufacturers claimed “WE HAVE A WIN” when it claimed an exception from the asbestos ban of 1989.

Meanwhile, these “wins” for the chlorine industry carry a body count. The Niagara Falls chlorine plant that was the subject of the ProPublica report might have shut down, but OxyChem and Olin continue to run eight plants that depend on asbestos. This is despite the companies having other plants that do not use asbestos. They can do their work without asbestos but don’t want to update their older plants. That would cost them money.

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