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Naugatuck Chemical

Once part of an idyllic setting of lush farmland, Naugatuck, Connecticut, was transformed during the 1800s into a vibrant industrial town. Rubber was soon the main output of this picturesque town of the Naugatuck valley. The United States Rubber Company that later became Uniroyal Inc. in 1961 was first constituted here in 1892. It maintained its head offices in Naugatuck until the 1980s.

Realizing the chemical processing was key to making rubber usable, a number of companies, including Goodyear Metallic Rubber Shoe Company, got together in 1892 to share research and development efforts and costs. The US Rubber Company was the result.

From Spin-off to Corporate Giant

As the price of the sulphuric acid needed at the time to process reclaimed rubber began to climb, the company erected its own plant to produce chemicals. Naugatuck Chemical Company first took its shape as a subsidiary of US Rubber on June 1, 1904. Located on 20 acres on Elm Street in Naugatuck, it had 43 buildings. The Naugatuck Chemical Plant produced a whole range of chemicals necessary for the process of reclaiming rubber. These included sulphuric acid, nitric acid, hydrofluoric acid, nitrobenzene and aniline.

Naugatuck Chemical Company had to face numerous challenges and changes over the years. Situations like World War 1 stopping the flow of aniline, a principal rubber softener from Germany, and an explosion in the building number seven at the plant in 1920 were setbacks. But the company recovered and prospered, becoming one of the leading chemical companies in the nation.

Ownership Changes and Downsizing

Naugatuck Chemical Company continued to be a subsidiary of US Rubber Company until it separated as Uniroyal Chemical Company in 1966. Its headquarters were then moved to Middlebury, Connecticut, during the 1970s. The company changed hands several times over the years. It was acquired by Avery, Inc., in 1986, by UCC Investors in 1989 and by Crompton and Knowles in 1996. It was then merged with Witco Chemicals in 1999 to form the C. K. Witco Corporation. Finally, it merged with Great Lakes Chemicals to form the Chemtura Corporation in 2005. There are only 50 people working at the Naugatuck Chemical Plant today, compared to the more than 9,000 in previous years.

Chemical Plants and Asbestos

If flame or heat was a risk, various forms of asbestos were the insulation preferred by builders during much of the 20th century. Materials made with asbestos, therefore, were commonly used when erecting chemical plants like Naugatuck Chemical. In addition to being a fire retardant and temperature-resistant, certain forms of asbestos are also especially resistant to reactive chemicals. Floor tiles, insulation, work surfaces, even protective clothing, therefore, commonly were made with the fibrous mineral. The ironic thing with asbestos is that while it does superbly protecting lives and property from the damage associated with extreme heat or fire - it is one of the most effective insulators known and has been used for the purpose for centuries - at the same time it poses serious risks to human well being.

In general, amosite was the type of asbestos used. When it is mixed with chrysotile, which is resistant to heat and bases but not as resistant to acids, amosite creates products that are particularly good at protecting against corrosive chemicals. Although it was banned for construction purposes in the 1970s, amosite, in the form of asbestos transite, appeared for many years in laboratories, chemical plants and refineries throughout the United States.

Asbestos transite could be molded into working surfaces, laminated and sprayed onto ductwork and pipes just like cement could. As a rule, new items built with transite were innocuous because the asbestos fibers were trapped in the transite. With age, however, transite with asbestos-containing material (ACM) becomes prone to becoming powdery, enabling microscopic fibers to float into the air. In other words, such asbestos is friable, which translates to easy to crush. Also, industrial ovens often contained friable asbestos in insulation linings.

Why Is Friable Asbestos Bad?

When they are friable, asbestos fibers are readily dispersed in the air. Breathing asbestos fibers can lead to diseases such as cancer or asbestosis. In addition, inhaling asbestos is known to be the leading causal factor of mesothelioma, a rare but all too often fatal cancer of the mesothelium, the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity. When those particles of asbestos in the air settle on food or in beverages and are subsequently swallowed, peritoneal or pericardial mesothelioma can occur, though they are rarer than pleural mesothelioma.

In the last twenty years scientists and researchers have discovered much information about the risks that accompany asbestos exposure, and as a result there are strict regulations controlling its use. However, when places like Naugatuck Chemical were first operating, the use of asbestos was much more prevalent. Before present-day safety regulations were enacted, workers frequently toiled without protective equipment in spaces where asbestos dust filled the air.

A Ticking Bomb

As opposed to typical on-the-job injuries, which are readily observed and known about soon after the incident, asbestos-related illnesses may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to develop. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases - pain in the chest, a persistent cough and dyspnea (i.e., shortness of breath) - may often be confused with the symptoms of other disorders. Men and women who worked in or spent much time near sites like Naugatuck Chemical should, accordingly, notify their health care professionals, such as noted mesothelioma cancer expert Dr. David Sugarbaker about the chance of exposure to asbestos. Moreover, spouses of these people are also at risk, because unless effective safety measures, like the use of on-site showers, were enforced, it was easy for employees to bring home particles of asbestos on themselves or their clothes.



Baptista, Robert J. - Naugatuck Chemical Company, Naugatuck, Connecticut

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