Aluminum Smelters and Asbestos
Aluminum is critical to many products we use daily, from beer cans to cars to aircraft. It’s light, strong, and like other metals, must be heated to very high temperatures to melt. This industrial process was helped along for decades by asbestos, which insulated equipment and was part of safety gear worn by workers. This mineral fiber shielded them from heat but may have caused them cancer years or decades after their exposure.
What is an Aluminum Smelter?
The smelting process starts with extracting alumina from the mineral bauxite in a two-step process. Bauxite is heated and mixed with chemicals, and the alumina is filtered out. Huge amounts of electricity are used to dissolve what becomes aluminum, which is separated from other materials, and collected. The process involves heat as high as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
What is Asbestos? Why Was It Used?
Asbestos is a natural mineral fiber. It’s resistant to:
For hundreds of years up to the late 1970s, asbestos was in thousands of products because of these and other properties. They were in homes, factories, vehicles, aircraft, ships, power plants, chemical plants, and aluminum smelters.
Intact asbestos products aren’t dangerous. Problems arise when fibers come loose when products are installed, disturbed, age, repaired, or replaced. You can’t see a fiber because it’s too small, but they’re visible when enough are in the air or collect on floors or equipment. Anyone in the area may swallow or inhale them.
Asbestos fibers are highly toxic when they get into the body. If they are:
- Inhaled, they may cause lung cancer, asbestosis (severe breathing problems), and a fatal cancer of the membrane lining the chest cavity, lungs, and heart (pleural and pericardial mesothelioma)
- Swallowed, they may travel through the digestive tract and cause peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects membranes lining abdominal organs and the abdominal cavity
Asbestos was mainly used as heat insulation and to prevent fires. As time passed, medical research showed asbestos’ health threats, but those profiting from asbestos, including employers, denied the truth for decades. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that government regulations greatly reduced its use.
Where Was Asbestos Used in Aluminum Smelters?
The smelting process carries a risk of overheating equipment and accidental fires. Asbestos was widely used in these facilities to reduce and control these risks. Asbestos helped keep equipment handling molten metal hot, making the process more efficient. Workers also used protective clothing containing asbestos.
Asbestos-containing refractory materials were used for insulation in very high-temperature settings like a smelter. They included:
Dry asbestos cement mixes were mixed with water, creating clouds of fibers, then applied in the production area. High heat would deteriorate the masonry in a smelter, so it was insulated with asbestos. But it could only do so much, so after enough damage was done, asbestos-coated masonry would be demolished and replaced, putting fibers into the air.
What Asbestos Dangers Do Aluminum Smelter Workers Face Now?
Instead of enjoying their “golden years,” many older and retired workers are dealing with lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesotheliomas because of asbestos exposure decades ago. These cancers are expensive to treat, debilitating, painful, and nearly always fatal.
Decades of legal claims and litigation have driven the asbestos industry out of business. To get bankruptcy protection from these liabilities, companies created trust funds for injured workers now worth billions of dollars. This money can pay medical costs and compensate those who worked in aluminum smelters who are harmed by asbestos.
Call Us Today For A Free Consultation
If you or a loved one worked at an aluminum smelter and are diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, you may have legal rights to compensation. Satterley & Kelley lawyers can answer your questions, discuss these rights, and how to protect them. You can call our Louisville office at 502-589-5600 or toll-free at 855-385-9532. You can also fill out our contact form and schedule a free initial consultation.