During its peak in the 20th century, asbestos was used throughout many industries, with little to no regard for the health risks.
Today, even after all we know about the cancerous substance, asbestos is still being used in the chlor-alkali industry.
Contrary to popular belief, asbestos is not banned in the United States, despite more than 60 countries around the world banning the cancer-causing mineral. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has implemented strict regulations forbidding the use of asbestos in most industries – except the chlor-alkali industry. Tons of asbestos are still being imported to the U.S. today, mostly to benefit two major corporations, OxyChem and Olin Corp.
But what makes this industry different from others that decades ago moved past using asbestos?
Chlor-Alkali Industry Reliance on Asbestos
The chlor-alkali industry and its big wigs claim asbestos is a key element when it comes to chlorine production and have convinced regulatory agencies to keep the cancer-causing substance legal.
Large chlor-alkali companies, like OxyChem and Olin Group, have now implemented extreme safety protocols for employees who may be working near asbestos, leaving almost no possibility of exposure. This is far from the reality workers experienced in these chemical plants decades ago.
What is Chlor-Alkali?
Chlor-alkali is a chemical manufactured through electrolysis. In the chlor-alkali process, salt brine (a mixture of sodium chloride and water) is dissolved in water and then fed into an electrolytic cell for the production of chlorine gas and caustic soda (sodium hydroxide).
The cells are powered by electricity that splits the sodium chloride (salt) into its two primary components, chlorine and caustic soda.
Chlorine gas is used to manufacture bleach and other chemical products. Caustic soda is an important chemical in making paper, soaps and detergents, textiles and many other products.
Chlor-alkali chemicals are part of everything from water purification and fertilizers to detergents and pharmaceuticals. In 1987 alone, there were 35 million tons of chlorine produced through the chlor-alkali industry.
Why is Asbestos Used in Chlor-Alkali Plants?
The chlor-alkali industry has been the main source for chlorine production since the 20th century. Chlor-alkali plants are responsible for the chemical processes required to make chlorine, hydrogen, and sodium hydroxide (caustic) solution.
The manufacturing of chlor-alkali is complex and involves scientific processes, such as electrolysis, a technique using direct electric currents to initiate a chemical reaction. The electric currents in electrolysis are generated by a cathode and anode, which hold the hydrogen, and sodium hydroxide (caustic) solution and are separated by an asbestos diaphragm.
Asbestos was used in the chlor-alkali electrolysis diaphragms for its durability and resistance to chemical reactions. The durable properties of asbestos help the diaphragm to sustain the impact of the electric currents and keep the chemicals separated.
How Many Chlor-Alkali Plants Are Still Active?
Chlor-alkali plants are the sole consumers of asbestos in the United States. According to the Chlorine Institute, there are 44 active chlor-alkali plants in the United States, but only 15 use asbestos diaphragms in their production process.
Plants still using asbestos diaphragms are owned by four companies – Occidental Chemical Corporation (OxyChem), Olin Corporation, SABIC, and Westlake Chemical Corporation.
In 2021, the U.S. imported 100 metric tons of asbestos, which is a drop from the 300 metric tons imported in 2020. However, the U.S. has already imported 114 metric tons in just the first three months of 2022. This puts the country on pace to import more than 400 metric tons this year.
The chlor-alkali industry reports annual sales over $8 billion, even with chlorine production declining approximately 10% in the U.S. (1.2 million tons) in 2021. This decline is directly related to the closure of manufacturing facilities, such as the Niagara Falls OxyChem plant previously mentioned and three Olin Corporation plants.
OxyChem’s Asbestos-Covered Chlor-Alkali Plant
A group of men who used to work at OxyChem’s chlor-alkali plant in Niagara Falls, New York have recently come forward to share their experience with ProPublica.
The group describes their daily working conditions, stating that asbestos dust could be seen in every corner of the plant – sometimes inches thick. Workers were not provided any type of asbestos protective equipment and were expected to continue working through the hazardous conditions.
OxyChem’s plant workers inhaled and ingested asbestos dust all day long and carried the cancerous substance around on their overalls and boots. They likely brought the toxic dust home to their families as they were greeted at the front door after a long day’s work, or washed their work uniform with the rest of the family’s laundry.
Workers Urged Supervisors to Improve Working Conditions
Men like Henry S., an OxyChem chlor-alkali plant worker for nearly three decades, told ProPublica that they knew the health risks associated with asbestos and knew that their working conditions should not be acceptable. As the workers knew the danger of their working conditions, they looked to their supervisors for help, hoping they would protect them.
Henry, along with his coworkers, reportedly urged their superiors to address the unsafe asbestos working conditions, but ProPublica reported that nothing changed. The asbestos dust blanketed OxyChem’s plant until the day it shut down in late 2021.
They continued to work amid the asbestos dust, trying their best not to inhale or ingest the dangerous fibers. As Henry knew how harmful asbestos could be, he began to believe that no matter how hard he tried to avoid the asbestos dust, it had probably already entered his body.
Workers assumed the company they worked for and regulatory agencies would protect them from asbestos as they did for most other industries. The supervisors, the OxyChem executives and government officials failed him and his coworkers by ignoring the unacceptable working conditions.
Another OxyChem Plant’s Past Asbestos Exposure
The plant in Niagara Falls, New York, is not the only OxyChem plant tied to asbestos exposure. OxyChem’s plant in North Tonawanda, about 10 miles from the Niagara Falls plant, is also under scrutiny, per a different report from ProPublica. The company used asbestos at the plant to make industrial plastics.
The North Tonawanda plant closed down and was demolished in the 1990s, but asbestos exposure for workers and residents up until that time still linger due to the latency period of asbestos diseases. Mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer, the two main types of cancer caused by asbestos, can take 10-40 years to form in the body.
This means asbestos exposure that occurred up until the 1990s may lead to mesothelioma or lung cancer now, in the 2020s, or even in future decades.
Victims of Plant Asbestos Exposure Leads to Lawsuits
OxyChem now faces more than 10 lawsuits based on residential asbestos exposure, which is also called environmental asbestos exposure. This type of exposure occurs when plants or other companies release loose asbestos fibers into a neighborhood or nearby environment. Residential exposure can pollute water supply and make entire areas of land dangerous for residents.
Libby, Montana, the site of a now-closed vermiculite mine, is the poster child of the effects of environmental asbestos exposure. More than 2,500 people in the city have died of mesothelioma, largely due to environmental exposure from the mine. Nearly 100,000 people in Libby have been exposed to asbestos. The town has fewer than 3,000 residents.
The victims of the OxyChem plant in North Tonawanda allege the company’s environmental asbestos exposure led to their asbestos condition, with mesothelioma diagnosed in some of the residents. Their descriptions of how asbestos dust blanketed the area are reminiscent of the damage asbestos caused Libby: Little League baseball fields too hazardous to use; window sills contaminated; dust settling in workers’ hair and clothes; entering people’s cars and homes.
“One woman, married to a plant employee, died after years of washing her husband’s asbestos-soiled uniform,” the ProPublica report reads.
The report also cites lawsuits stating that plant workers used air hoses to remove asbestos dust from the facility. This practice sent the sharp and loose fibers into the nearby neighborhood’s environment.
Concerns With EPA’s Regulations
The story of OxyChem’s poor working conditions – decades after the regulation of asbestos – has brought up concerns regarding the EPA’s ability to control toxic substances.
After the country was swept with asbestos and the workforce widely affected by asbestos related diseases, the whole world knew how dangerous asbestos could be. However, the EPA let the chlor-alkali industry slide, allowing corporations to continue importing and utilizing asbestos in an unsafe manner.
Earlier this year – almost 30 years after the official halt in asbestos use – the EPA announced a proposal to ban chrysotile asbestos, the last type of asbestos still imported to the United States.
If this proposed ban is passed, all types of asbestos will finally be outlawed in the United States.
However, the chlor-alkali industry has pushed against this ban and argued that the elimination of asbestos will significantly affect the industry and the products it generates.
Sources & Author
Chlor-alkali products make everyday life safer, healthier and more convenient. Oxy. Retrieved from: https://www.oxy.com/operations/essential-chemistry/chlor-alkali/. Accessed: 11/16/2022.
They inhaled asbestos for decades on the job. Now, workers break their silence. Npr. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/10/20/1129999511/asbestos-ban-us-workers-cancer-risk. Accessed: 11/02/22.
Lawsuits: A Factory Blew Asbestos Into a Neighborhood; Decades Later, Residents Are Getting Sick and Dying. ProPublica. Retrieved from: https://www.propublica.org/article/lawsuits-say-oxychem-released-asbestos-north-tonawanda. Accessed: 11/08/2022.
Chlor-alkali process. Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/technology/chlor-alkali-process. Accessed: 11/03/22.
ACC Urges EPA to Reconsider its Flawed Chlor-alkali Proposal. American Chemical Counsel. Retrieved from: https://www.americanchemistry.com/chemistry-in-america/news-trends/press-release/2022/acc-urges-epa-to-reconsider-its-flawed-chlor-alkali-proposal#:~:text=Chrysolite%20asbestos%20is%20used%20by,89%25%20of%20crop%20protection%20chemicals. Accessed: 11/04/22.
ADAO Chlor-Alkali Industry Report. Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Retrieved from: chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.asbestosdiseaseawareness.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/ADAO-ChlorAlkali-Industry-Report.pdf. Accessed: 11/07/22.
Sources & Author