Resources for Patients and their Families

Martinez Refining Company

Currently owned and operated by the Shell Oil Corporation, the Martinez Refinery Company is located on an 1,100-acre site on the south shore of the Carquinez Inlet across from the city of Benecia, approximately 30 miles northeast of San Francisco.


The Martinez Refinery Company was constructed just prior to US entry into World War I by Shell Oil for providing fuel and lubricants to ships and the increasing number of automobiles in the San Francisco Bar Area. Refining operations commenced in 1916; most of the crude oil was piped in from oil drilling operations in the San Joaquin Valley to the southeast.

The operation was expanded in 1931, when Shell added a research laboratory and a chemical plant on the premises. A light oil processing facility was constructed thirty years later. The facility underwent some modernization during the 1980s and 1990s. It received the name "Martinez Refining Company" in 1998 when Texaco made an investment in some projects. Shell bought Texaco out four years later; since then, it has been known as the Shell Martinez Refinery.

Asbestos and Oil Refineries

During most of the 20th century, various forms of asbestos were used as insulation when flames or temperature extremes were a risk. Oil refineries like Martinez Refining Company, therefore, were often made using asbestos-containing materials. Resistance to reactive chemicals is perhaps a less well-known property of some types of amphibole asbestos. Because of the nature of the work that occurs at oil refineries, asbestos, therefore, was not only used in plant structures, but also in safety garments, work surfaces and lab equipment. Asbestos, however, carried a notable downside that was not understood or at times deliberately ignored: debilitating and often fatal diseases were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.

Most of the asbestos was of the amosite variety. When it is mixed with chrysotile, which is impervious to heat and bases but not as resistant to acidic compounds, amosite creates products that are particularly effective at preventing damage from corrosive substances. Used for decades in the form of asbestos transite in oil refineries and laboratories across the US, amosite was eventually outlawed for construction purposes in the 1970s.

Similar to cement, asbestos transite could be sprayed onto ductwork and pipes and molded into working surfaces. For the most part, new items formed from transite were safe because the asbestos fibers were encapsulated in the transite. With age, however, this transite becomes prone to becoming powdery, enabling tiny fibers to float into the atmosphere. When it is in this state, it is considered friable, or able to be crushed by hand pressure alone. In addition, laboratory kilns often contained friable asbestos in insulation linings.

Why Friable Asbestos Is a Problem

Friable asbestos is hazardous because in this condition the particles are easily released in the environment. When someone inhales these particles, they can harm the lungs, resulting in cancer or asbestosis. Another uncommon, and often deadly, disease caused by asbestos is mesothelioma. The pleural variety of mesothelioma, one which attacks the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity, is the most prevalent. Pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma result from swallowing fibers of asbestos, which can occur when the microscopic particles are released into the air and land on food or drinks.

During the past twenty years medical researchers have discovered much information concerning the risks associated with being exposed to asbestos; therefore there are stringent rules controlling its use. However, when plants such as Martinez Refining Company were first operating, the use of asbestos was more commonplace. Before present-day laws were put into place, employees frequently labored without respirators in environments where asbestos particles filled the atmosphere.

The Ticking Bomb

Asbestos-related diseases, unlike many work-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to develop. It can also be challenging to identify asbestos-related illnesses since their symptoms are similar to the symptoms of other, less serious conditions. It is vital, therefore, that everyone who worked at or lived near places like Martinez Refining Company notify their health care professionals about the possibility of asbestos exposure and ask for mesothelioma information. Such information can help physicians make a timely diagnosis; especially with mesothelioma, the sooner it is diagnosed, the higher the odds of surviving or at least of improved quality of life. For some patients, treatments like mesothelioma surgery are available.



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