Rhone-Poulenc was a French company that specialized in the manufacture of chemicals, including those used in pharmaceutical products. The company's chemical division became a separate company named Rhodia, while the pharmaceutical division merged with a German biotech firm in 2000 with the new name Aventis.
A Brief History
The Oregon Rhone Poulenc Chemical Plant was originally Chipman Chemical. The plant was constructed in 1944. The original plant was located along US Highway 30 on the east bank of the Willamette River across from Portland's historic St. Johns neighborhood. For over twenty years, Chipman manufactured herbicides. These included DDT and acids that were the basis of the defoliant Agent Orange in addition to other agricultural chemicals. Production of these products continued under ownership of Rhone-Poulenc.
The original site has now been abandoned and is the focus of intensive cleanup efforts. The entity formerly known as Rhone-Poulenc continues operations as Rhodia, with a plant located approximately four miles northeast of the original site on the south bank of the Columbia.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reported in 2000 that the plant's chemical handling was "sloppy at best". In addition to dumping wastes into Doane Lake next to the Willamette River, the company documented over 50 chemical spills in a four-year period during the early 1970s.
Today, the plant is a Superfund site. Rhodia still owns the property and continues operations as it supports local attempts to remediate the environmental damage of the past several decades. So far, this has cost the taxpayers of Portland in excess of $55 million dollars.
Asbestos and Oregon Rhone Poulenc Chemical Plant
In situations where heat or fire was a risk, the mineral called asbestos was the insulator preferred by builders in most of the 20th century. As a result, it was usual for chemical plants like Oregon Rhone Poulenc Chemical Plant to be constructed with asbestos-containing materials. A lesser-known property of some types of asbestos is that they resist chemicals. Ceiling tiles, insulation, counter tops, even protective uniforms, therefore, commonly contained the fibrous mineral. There is no doubt that asbestos was very good at protecting against combustion or high heat. This benefit, however, came with a tragic cost in terms of human health.
Most of the asbestos was the form called amosite. Frequently called "brown asbestos", the amphibole form of asbestos known as amosite is particularly good at resisting corrosive chemicals like those produced in facilities like Oregon Rhone Poulenc Chemical Plant because of the iron in its chemical makeup. Used for decades in the form of asbestos-containing transite in oil refineries and labs throughout the United States, amosite was finally prohibited from use as a construction material in the 1970s.
Asbestos transite could be sprayed onto ductwork and pipes, laminated and molded into working surfaces in the same way cement could. As a rule, new items formed from transite were safe since the asbestos particles were trapped in the transite. As this transite gets older and become prone to crumbling, however, lethal, microscopic particles can float into the air. In this state, it is said to be friable, or able to be pulverized by hand pressure alone. Industrial ovens also frequently contained friable asbestos in insulation linings.
Why Friable Asbestos Is a Problem
Friable asbestos is hazardous because in this condition the particles are readily dispersed into the environment. Inhaling asbestos fibers can lead to conditions such as asbestosis or cancer. In addition, asbestos exposure has been shown to be the primary causal factor of mesothelioma, an unusual but frequently fatal disease of the mesothelium, which is the lining between the lungs and the chest cavity. Swallowing asbestos fibers, as happens if those tiny particles enter the air and settle on food or drinks, can lead to pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma.
Increased pressure from the media, activist groups and the medical community forced the creation of regulations controlling how to use asbestos. However, when places like Oregon Rhone Poulenc Chemical Plant were first operating, asbestos was much more prevalent. And in too many instances people used materials containing asbestos when they did not have the benefit of protective equipment.
The Lurking Danger of Asbestos
Asbestos cancer, unlike most on-the-job injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the causing incident, may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to manifest. When a worker starts exhibiting symptoms such as pain in the chest, a persistent cough and shortness of breath, his or her doctor may not at first recognize asbestos exposure as a factor, leading to delays in diagnosis. Accordingly, it is vital for folks who worked in or spent much time around places like Oregon Rhone Poulenc Chemical Plant to notify their health care professionals about the chance of asbestos exposure. Furthermore, even people who commuted in the same cars with these people are also at risk, as unless strict decontamination protocols, including using on-site uniforms and showers, were enforced, it was common for workers to bring asbestos fibers on their skin, in their hair, or on their clothes.Sources
Carter, Glen D - Pioneering Water Pollution Control in OregonOregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 107 no. 2 Summer 2006)
Funding Universe - Rhone-Poulenc S.A.
Hunsberger, Bret - It Wasn't A Healthy Place To Work (The Oregonian, 19 December 2000)
Jacklet, Ben - Portland Harbor Sinks Under Superfund (Oregon Business, January 2010)
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal