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Alcan Aluminum Plant

The Alcan Aluminum Plant was a cast aluminum plate facility located in Vernon, California. The facility was closed in January 2006, after market forces caused financial difficulties and a Rio Tinto takeover of the company caused a refocusing of production energies.

The Plant

When it was in operation, the Alcan Aluminum plant produced cast aluminum plates for the mold and tool-making industries. It employed 64 members of the United Auto Workers and 12 management staff at the time of the closure.

The facility utilized a process in which a molten bath of aluminum underwent electrolysis, which resulted in the accretion of pure aluminum on a cathode. This method is hazardous in that it results in a toxic exhaust composed of carbon dioxide and hydrogen fluoride.

The pure aluminum was then pressed and rolled into sheets before shipping.

Alcan

Alcan was founded in 1902 as the Canadian unit of the Aluminum Corporation of America. After that, the company went through several name changes, and attempts to track down the history of the company are sometimes hampered by this series of shifting identities. The names for Alcan are: Northern Aluminum Company Limited (1902), Aluminum Company of Canada Limited (1925), Alcan (1945), Aluminium du Canada, Limitée (1965), Alcan Inc. (2001) and Rio Tinto Alcan Inc. (2007).

Alcan Inc. was the third-largest aluminum producer in the world at the time of the Rio Tinto takeover. Alcan had been spun off of Alcoa (Aluminum Corporation of America) in 1928. In 2007, Alcoa attempted a hostile takeover of Alcan, but when the takeover failed, a deal was struck with Rio Tinto that created Rio Tinto Alcan. Today, Rio Tinto is the largest aluminum producer in the world.

Asbestos and the Alcan Aluminum Plant in Vernon, California

For much of the last century, in cases where excessive heat or fire was a concern, various forms of asbestos were selected as insulation. As a result, it was quite common for aluminum smelters such as the Alcan Aluminum Plant in Vernon, California, to be constructed with materials that contained asbestos. One of the other properties of asbestos is that it's unaffected by conducting electricity. Because aluminum creation not only involves high temperatures but also utilizes large amounts of electricity, asbestos could be found throughout the majority of aluminum smelters. Lab equipment, protective garments and counter tops were also constructed of asbestos-containing material because of its resistance to chemical corrosion. The ironic thing with asbestos is that while it does very well at guarding against the damage done by extreme heat or flames - it is one of the most effective insulators known and has been used for this purpose for centuries - at the same time it poses serious risks to people's well being.

Much of the asbestos was the form called chrysotile. Despite mounting proof to the contrary, for a long time chrysotile was described by corporate interests as "environmentally friendly" and the "good asbestos". Used for many years in the form of asbestos-containing transite in aluminum plants throughout the United States, chrysotile - frequently combined with brown or blue asbestos - was eventually disallowed as a construction material in the 1970s.

Asbestos transite possessed properties like cement; it could be molded into working surfaces, laminated and sprayed onto pipes and ductwork. As long as asbestos transite remained solid, this form of asbestos offered little risk. As this transite gets older and become prone to crumbling, however, deadly, tiny particles are able to float into the air. That is, such asbestos is friable, a term used to describe materials that are easy to crush.

Why Friable Asbestos Is a Problem

Asbestos particles, when friable, are easily dispersed in the air. If a person inhales these particles, they can harm the lungs, resulting in asbestosis or cancer. In addition, asbestos exposure is the leading causal factor of mesothelioma, an unusual and almost always fatal disease of the mesothelium, the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity. When the particles of asbestos in the air settle on food or drinks and are subsequently ingested, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma may occur, although they are less common than pleural mesothelioma.

Because research led to increased knowledge of the risks of asbestos exposure, people today benefit from the protection offered by strict guidelines regulating the use of asbestos. When plants such as the Alcan Aluminum Plant in Vernon, California, were constructed, however, asbestos was much more common. Any asbestos remaining from that period can still pose danger if special care is not taken during remodeling projects.

The Hidden Danger of Asbestos

In contrast to most job-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, asbestos cancer may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to manifest. It can also be hard to identify asbestos-related disorders since their symptoms can be mistaken for the symptoms of other disorders. Therefore, it is vital for all that worked at or resided near plants such as the Alcan Aluminum Plant in Vernon to tell their physicians about the chance of asbestos exposure. Such information can enable physicians to make a timely diagnosis; especially with mesothelioma cancer, the earlier it is caught, the better the odds of surviving or at least of enjoying an improved quality of life.

Sources

Sources

Azom.com Alcan to Close Aluminum Cast Plate Plant in Vernon, California
http://www.azom.com/News.asp?NewsID=4455

Rio Tinto Alcan - Our History

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/EHSRM/ASB/acmimages3.html

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/EHSRM/HAZEXCEPTIONS/a.html

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