Resources for Patients and their Families

Shell Chemical Louisiana

Shell Chemical is a subsidiary of the trans-national corporation Royal Dutch Shell. The refinery and chemical plant currently located in Norco, approximately 20 miles west of New Orleans, was built for the purpose of providing fuel oil for sea-going vessels just prior to the US entry into World War I. Currently, it is one of the largest employers in the New Orleans metro area. Among the products coming out from the facility are the following:

  • ethylene
  • propylene
  • butadiene
  • butyl alcohol
  • olefin

Butadiene and butyl alcohol are also stored on-site. It is small wonder that this stretch of the Mississippi River - where the residents are largely poor and African-American - has long been known as "Cancer Alley."

Righting Environmental Injustice

Thanks largely to efforts on the part of the Sierra Club, live video footage of the Norco facility releasing toxins into the environment forced the Shell Corporation to buy out residents of the nearby Old Diamond neighborhood, paying $120,000 per home plus reimbursement for relocation and legal expenses. According to a Sierra Club article, the Norco plant was, as of 2003, releasing almost 75,000 tons of toxic chemicals into the air on an annual basis.

Oil Refineries and Asbestos

In situations where combustion or heat was a risk, various forms of asbestos were the insulator of choice for most of the last century. Materials made with asbestos, accordingly, were commonly used in the building of oil refineries such as Shell Chemical. In addition to being fireproof and heat-proof, various forms of asbestos are also especially impervious to chemical reactions. Floor tiles, insulation, benches, even protective garments, therefore, commonly were made with the fibrous mineral. There is little question that asbestos was superb at safeguarding against excessive heat and combustion. This strength, however, came with a major cost in terms of human health.

Much of this asbestos was amosite. When mixed with chrysotile, which is resistant to heat and bases but not as impervious to acids, the amphibole amosite creates materials that are especially effective at preventing damage from corrosive chemicals. Although it was outlawed in building materials in the 1970s, this amosite, in the form of asbestos transite, was utilized for many years in laboratories, chemical plants and refineries across the US.

Asbestos transite could be laminated and sprayed onto ductwork and pipes in the same way cement could. As long as it was solid, this form of asbestos posed no immediate hazard. With age, however, transite with asbestos-containing material (ACM) grows prone to crumbling, allowing tiny particles to float into the atmosphere. Asbestos when it is in this state is considered friable, a term that is used for material that is easily crushed. Laboratory and chemical plant kilns also almost always contained friable asbestos as part of their insulation linings.

The Dangers of Friable Asbestos

Asbestos particles, when they are friable, can be easily dispersed in the environment. If a person breathes these fibers, they can harm the lungs, resulting in asbestosis or cancer. In addition, asbestos exposure has been shown to be the leading cause of pleural mesothelioma, an unusual and almost always lethal disease of the mesothelium, the lining between the lungs and the chest cavity. If those airborne particles land on food or in beverages and are subsequently ingested, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma may result, though they are less common than pleural mesothelioma.

Mounting pressure from activist groups, medical scientists and the press led to rules controlling the use of asbestos. When facilities such as Shell Chemical were constructed, however, the use of asbestos was much more prevalent. Before modern regulations were enacted, workers often toiled without respirators or other protective gear in environments where asbestos particles filled the atmosphere.

The Lurking Hazard of Asbestos

One of the insidious aspects of exposure to asbestos is that resulting diseases can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to develop - often long after a worker has left the employer. The symptoms of asbestosis and mesothelioma - dyspnea and pain in the chest - can often be confused with the symptoms of other conditions. It is very important, therefore, that all that were employed by or spent much time near sites such as Shell Chemical ask their health care professionals for mesothelioma information. New therapies, such as mesothelioma surgery, are being developed, and early detection provides the patient the best chance of beating the previously always-fatal form of cancer.


Sources - Norco Ethylene Plant, LA, USA

Finch, Susan - '88 Shell Case May Haunt Lawyer (Times-Picayune, 19 February 2007)

Muhich, Mark - Shell Victory

Shell Chemicals Corporate Website - About Norco

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

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog



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