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USI Chemical Co.

The USI division of Quantum Chemical Company in Clinton, Iowa (also known as Norchem, Chemplex and Enron; affiliated with Mapco, Inc., after 1984) is known to have produced vinyl acetate, a potentially harmful chemical compound.

The plant's manufacturing wastes were disposed of on the property via two means: a lined lagoon and an unlined landfill. At some point during the plant's history, an incident occurred in which the lagoon's containment system was damaged during the process of removing waste sludge. As a result of this event, the USI Chemical site is a known potential public health risk. Groundwater, surface water, and soil (as well as area fish) have been contaminated with a number of chemical substances.

What Is Vinyl Acetate?

Vinyl acetate is commonly used as a chemical building block for a variety of consumer products, including the following:

  • Plastics
  • Films/lacquers
  • Inks and water-based paints
  • Adhesives
  • Floor tiling
  • Cosmetics

Specifically, resins manufactured at the USI plant in Clinton, Iowa, were used in packaging materials for the automotive, food and medical industries.

Is Vinyl Acetate Harmful?

There is mixed information available about whether or not vinyl acetate is considered harmful to humans. In animal testing, limited exposure resulted in irritation to the nose, throat and respiratory system. Higher levels of exposure over a short period of time have been associated with pulmonary edema. Long-term exposure at high levels has been linked to tumors in areas of the body that came into direct contact with the chemical (the nose and respiratory tract for inhalation; the stomach and esophagus for ingestion).

Recent Developments

As of 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a remedial action for the USI Chemical Co. site. Standard pumping and treatment of ground water was suspended to allow the system to recover, and more rigorous monitoring of ground water was planned for late 2008.

About Clinton, Iowa

Clinton, Iowa is a mid-sized town with a population of about 26,000 on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Proximity to both the river and rail lines helped the town develop as a center for manufacturing throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Asbestos in USI Chemical Company in Clinton, Iowa

If extreme temperature or fire was a risk, asbestos was the insulating material preferred by builders during the majority of the 20th century. Plants like USI Chemical Company in Clinton, Iowa, therefore, were usually constructed with materials that contained asbestos. In addition to being fireproof and temperature-resistant, various forms of amphibole asbestos are also particularly resistant to chemical reactions. Floor tiles, insulation, counter tops, even protective garments, therefore, often were made with the fibrous mineral. Asbestos, however, carried a notable downside that was not understood or at times deliberately ignored: debilitating and sometimes lethal medical conditions were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.

Generally, amosite was the type of asbestos utilized. Amosite is one of the amphibole forms of the asbestos family of minerals and is commonly thought to be more likely to lead to disease than serpentine asbestos. Used for many years in the form of asbestos-containing transite in chemical plants and oil refineries throughout the US, amosite was eventually banned as a construction material in the 1970s.

Asbestos transite displayed properties like cement; it could be sprayed onto ductwork and pipes, laminated and molded into working surfaces. As long as asbestos transite remained solid, this form of asbestos posed little risk. With age, however, asbestos-containing transite grows prone to crumbling, allowing tiny particles to flake off into the atmosphere. Asbestos when it is in this state is called friable, which means easy to pulverize. Also, laboratory and chemical plant kilns often were fabricated with friable asbestos as part of their insulation linings.

The Problem with Friable Asbestos

Asbestos particles, when they are friable, can be easily released into the air. When someone inhales these particles, they can damage the lungs, resulting in cancer or asbestosis. Another rare, but often lethal, disease linked to asbestos is a type of cancer called mesothelioma. The pleural variety of the disease, one which affects the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity, is the most prevalent. If the particles of asbestos in the air land on food or in beverages and are then ingested, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma may occur, although they are less common than pleural mesothelioma.

Since medical research yielded more understanding of asbestos' serious effects on human health, men and women today benefit from the protection offered by stringent guidelines regulating how to use asbestos. When USI Chemical Company in Clinton began operation, however, the use of asbestos was much more commonplace. And even now, asbestos from long ago can cause problems if it is not properly contained during demolition and remodeling jobs.

The Lurking Hazard of Asbestos

Asbestos-related diseases, as opposed to most on-the-job injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, may take many, many years to develop. It can also be challenging to diagnose asbestos-related disorders because the symptoms resemble those of other, less serious conditions. It is extremely important, therefore, that men and women that were employed by or spent much time around plants like USI Chemical Company in Clinton, Iowa notify their doctors about the possibility of exposure to asbestos and gather as much mesothelioma information as possible. Such information can help doctors make a timely diagnosis; mesothelioma prognosis can be grim so the sooner it is caught, the higher the chances of surviving or at least of enjoying an improved quality of life.



Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry - Toxological Profile Information Sheet - Clinton, Iowa

Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce - Our Community

Environmental Protection Agency - Fact Sheet

New York Times - Mapco Signs Pact To Add Chemplex

U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Scientific and Technical Information - Energy Citations Database

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

Vinyl Acetate Council - What is Vinyl Acetate?

Vinyl Acetate Council - Health and Environmental Effects

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