Hercules Powder Company was a small gunpowder company gobbled up by industrial giant Du Pont in the 1880s. The federal government worked to break up Du Pont's chemical monopoly, and in 1912 a Federal Court ordered the re-establishment of Hercules Powder as a separate entity to increase competition and lower prices in the explosives industry. In the following years, the differences between Hercules Powder and its former parent company were more mythical than legitimate, but over the years Hercules eventually assumed a separate identity. With the residual benefits of being a Du Pont spin-off - including executives who were former Du Pont managers and a sizable loan to get started - Hercules Powder quickly grew into one of the biggest, most successful chemical companies in the United States, with factories scattered throughout the country. At the time of its demise, Hercules Incorporated was headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware.
World War II saw a dramatic increase in demand for products manufactured by Hercules, and the number of rank-and-file workers more than doubled during the war. In the 1950s and '60s, large government contracts helped solidify Hercules as a major player in the US chemical manufacturing arena, and the focus on military-related chemical manufacturing continued through the Vietnam War. In the '80s and '90s, the focus of production turned to more consumer-oriented ventures, including products used in latex paints, food and drinks, and paper production. The Hercules plant in Portland, Oregon, was part of the Paper Technologies division, focused on paper production. In 2008, Hercules was acquired by Ashland Inc., a specialty chemical company that services chemical needs in over 100 countries and is based in Covington, Kentucky.
Products and Services
When the company was first founded, its products focused on explosives and explosive-related chemical compounds. The company provided materials to explosives companies, mining interests, the military and gun owners. The company began diversifying in the 1920s by branching out into the manufacture of acetone for the British government and cotton cellulose fiber for use in lacquers and plastics. By 1935 the company had five distinct manufacturing divisions, including cellulose, chemical cotton, and paper products. Government and military contracts in the '50s and '60s led to further diversification as Hercules began manufacturing rocket fuels, aerospace equipment and specialty chemicals used in war operations, including Agent Orange and napalm. In the years prior to Ashland's acquisition, Hercules produced products in four main areas: water-soluble fibers for latex paints, paper sizing and paper manufacturing chemicals, resins used as additives to adhesive products and edible gum products for use as ingredients in food and beverages.
Hercules Powder Company plant in Oregon and Asbestos
In much of the 20th century, asbestos was chosen as a building material when fire or temperature extremes were a concern. Chemical plants such as the Hercules Powder Company plant in Oregon, therefore, were often built using materials containing asbestos. A lesser-known property of some kinds of asbestos is that they resist chemical reactions. Due to the kind of work that goes on at chemical plants, asbestos, therefore, was not only used in plant structures, but also in protective clothes and benches. And although the asbestos served its purpose well in safeguarding against the spread of fire and in protecting lives from high temperatures, it also exposed people who used it or worked around it to serious health risks.
For the most part, amosite was the type of asbestos utilized. The brownish tint associated with amosite comes from iron molecules in its chemical composition; this also causes amosite to be resistant to corrosive chemicals like those produced in facilities like the Hercules Powder Company plant in Oregon. Used for decades in the form of asbestos-containing transite in labs and oil refineries throughout the United States, amosite was eventually disallowed in building materials in the 1970s.
Asbestos transite was characterized properties like cement; it could be sprayed onto pipes and ductwork, molded into working surfaces and laminated. For the most part, new items formed from transite were considered innocuous because the asbestos particles were encapsulated in the transite. As transite with asbestos containing material (ACM) gets older and become prone to crumbling, however, deadly, tiny fibers are able to float into the air. In other words, such asbestos is friable, a term used to describe material that is easy to crush. In addition, laboratory kilns frequently were constructed with friable asbestos in insulation linings.
The Dangers of Friable Asbestos
When they are friable, asbestos fibers are readily dispersed in the air. Inhaling asbestos particles can cause conditions like cancer. Mesothelioma, an unusual and frequently lethal cancer affecting the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity), has been shown to be linked with inhaling asbestos peritoneal mesothelioma. Ingestion of asbestos fibers, as can occur when those tiny particles enter the air and settle on food or in beverages, can result in pericardial or.
Mounting pressure from concerned citizens, the medical community and news media led to regulations controlling the use of asbestos. The use of asbestos was more common, however, when facilities such as Oregon's Hercules Powder Company plant were built. Before modern rules were put into place, workers often labored without respirators or other safety gear in environments where asbestos particles clouded the atmosphere.
Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger
Asbestos cancer, as opposed to typical on-the-job injuries, which are readily observed and known about immediately following the causing incident, may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to appear. Given such a long time between exposure to asbestos and the manifestation of symptoms, the worker might not associate his or her current condition with work done many years earlier. Hence, it is vital for those who were employed by or spent much time near plants such as Hercules Powder Company's Oregon plant to inform their health care professionals about the chance of asbestos exposure. In addition, family members and others who shared homes with these people are also at risk, since unless effective decontamination policies, like the use of on-site uniforms and showers, were enforced, it was all too common for employees to bring asbestos dust on themselves or their clothes.Sources
Ashland, Inc Corporate Web Site - Ashland Completes Acquisition of Hercules
Encyclopedia.com - International Directory of Company Histories - Hercules Inc
Funding Universe - Hercules Company Profile
Hercules Corporate Web Site, Archived - About Hercules, Locations, Businesses
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal