Resources for Patients and their Families

ARCO Alaska

Formerly owned and operated by the Atlantic Richfield Corporation (ARCO), the Prudhoe Bay refinery is now under ownership of BP, which acquired ARCO in 2000. The Prudhoe Bay oilfield is currently the largest in the United States; recent estimates indicated that as of August 2006, there were approximately 2 billion barrels of crude oil remaining.

About Prudhoe Bay

Located on the north coast of Alaska some 400 miles north of Fairbanks, the area surrounding Prudhoe Bay was long believed to contain massive oil reserves; however, exploration did not commence until the early 1960s, and no actual oil was discovered until 1968. Recovery and refining operations did not begin until after 1977.

In 2006, an oil spill occurred in this environmentally sensitive region when a pipeline ruptured, spilling nearly 270,000 barrels into the Arctic Ocean. Operations ceased for over a year. Ultimately, BP was fined $20 million by the state of Alaska.

Asbestos and the Prudhoe Bay ARCO Refinery

In much of the 1900s, whenever fire or heat was a risk, asbestos was selected as a building material. Therefore, it was typical for oil refineries like the Prudhoe Bay ARCO Refinery to be made with asbestos-containing materials. Along with being heat-proof and fire retardants, various kinds of asbestos are also especially impervious to chemical reactions. Floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, benches, even protective uniforms, therefore, frequently were made with the fibrous mineral. Asbestos, however, carried a significant downside that was either not known or at times deliberately ignored: debilitating and sometimes lethal diseases were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.

In general, amosite was the type of asbestos utilized. When mixed with chrysotile, which is impervious to heat and bases but not as resistant to acidic compounds, amosite creates materials that are especially effective at protecting against corrosive chemicals. Although it was disallowed for construction purposes in the 1970s, this amosite, in the form of asbestos transite, was utilized for decades in oil refineries and labs across the country.

Asbestos transite had qualities like cement; it could be sprayed onto ductwork and pipes and molded into working surfaces. This form of asbestos did not pose a health hazard so long as it remained solid. As asbestos-containing transite ages and become prone to becoming powdery, however, deadly, tiny fibers are able to flake off into the air. In this state, it is said to be friable, a term that is used for material that is easy to crush. Industrial kilns also often contained friable asbestos as part of their insulation linings.

Why Friable Asbestos Is Bad

When they are friable, asbestos particles are easily dispersed in the environment. If someone breathes these fibers, they can damage the lungs, resulting in asbestosis. Mesothelioma, an unusual and all too often fatal cancer affecting the mesothelium (the lining between the lungs and the pleural cavity), is strongly linked with exposure to asbestos. Swallowing asbestos fibers, as happens if the tiny particles are released into the air and land on food or drinks, may result in pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma.

Since medical research yielded more awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure, employees today enjoy the protection of stringent rules controlling the use of asbestos. The use of asbestos was more prevalent, however, when facilities such as the Prudhoe Bay ARCO Refinery began operating. Before modern regulations were put into place, employees often toiled without respirators in environments where asbestos dust clouded the atmosphere.

Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger

Asbestos-related diseases, unlike most workplace injuries, which are readily observed and known about soon after the causing incident, may take many, many years to develop. The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma and asbestosis - dyspnea and chronic coughing - may easily be mistaken for those of other conditions. Those that worked in or lived near facilities such as the Prudhoe Bay ARCO Refinery should, accordingly, tell their physicians about the possibility of asbestos exposure. New drugs for treating mesothelioma are being developed, and early detection gives patients and their doctors the best chance to combat the previously deathly disease. Those who think they could have been negligently exposed should seek legal counsel with a mesothelioma attorney.



British Petroleum - Fact Sheet

Sweet, John M. - Discovery at Prudhoe Bay (Blaine, WA: Hancock House, 2008)

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

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

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