Alcoa originally built its Vancouver Washington smelter in 1940, on the North bank of the Columbia River. Alcoa became an important source of jobs in Clark County, as aluminum production geared up during World War II and the Cold War years that followed. Alcoa drew power from newly constructed hydro-electric dams on the Columbia River, reaching an all-time production high in 1943. The company operated a variety of aluminum production and fabrication facilities on the site for 45 years, selling it to VANALCO in 1985. VANALCO ran the plant for another 15 years until its final closure in 2000.
Although the aluminum industry is well-known for its toxic emissions, it also was a source of asbestos exposure for many of its workers. Prior to the late 1970s, asbestos was common both in building materials and in general industrial applications. Asbestos was valued in the aluminum industry for its heat-resistant properties.
Aluminum production requires heating materials to around 960 degrees Celsius, and asbestos was used to insulate ovens, boilers, furnaces, and even the heat-resistant mitts that employees used to handle hot materials. In 1989, a study in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine found that the incidence of cancer in magnesium industry workers was greater than that of the general population. Asbestos exposure was cited as one of the most likely contributing factors.
When damaged or crumbling, asbestos insulation is considered to be one of the most harmful types of asbestos exposure. Asbestos is most dangerous when it is friable – meaning that it crumbles easily producing tiny fibers which can be inhaled. Prior to widespread asbestos regulation, aluminum industry workers would have been exposed to potentially friable asbestos-based insulation on a daily basis. Families of workers were also placed at risk, as asbestos fibers in the air would settle on clothing and be carried home.
In January of 2009, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against Alcoa in a suit by a young woman who developed lung cancer due to exposure from asbestos carried home on her father’s clothing from his job in a Tennessee plant. In the words of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Alcoa “has a full duty to prevent its employees from going home at the end of the workday in clothes that are contaminated with asbestos fibers.”
Some of the dangers of asbestos exposure were understood as early as the 1930s. By the 1960s, doctors had identified a definitive link between asbestos and certain types of deadly lung cancer. Despite these findings, companies like Alcoa continued to make use of asbestos without proper safety precautions until the late 1970s, exposing thousands of workers and their families to unnecessary risk.
Although asbestos-related illnesses can take decades to develop, the eventual impact of exposure may have deadly consequences. If you or someone you love worked at Alcoa Aluminum or another job site and suffer from mesothelioma, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact Bergman Draper Oslund today, for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation.