Royal Dutch Shell's Deer Park refinery and chemical plant is located approximately 20 miles east of Houston, Texas. It was the first industry to locate in the community, starting operations just prior to the stock market crash that resulted in a 10-year economic depression in the U.S. over 75 years ago. In addition to a range of synthetic materials used in clothing and plastics, the refinery processes 340,00 barrels of crude oil a day.
Fighting for Clean Air
In 2007, the Sierra Club and Environment Texas filed suit against Shell over repeated violations of the Clean Air Act by releasing millions of pounds of toxins into the air, including benzene, a known carcinogen, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and butadiene. The sixth-largest such plant in the United States, Shell's Deer Park facility has made the air quality in Harris County rank among the worst in the country.
Oil Refineries and Asbestos
During most of the 20th century, asbestos was chosen as insulation when fire or extreme heat was a risk. Materials that contained asbestos, therefore, were frequently used when constructing oil refineries such as Shell's Deer Park refinery and chemical plant. Resistance to chemical reactions is perhaps a less well-known property of certain types of amphibole asbestos. Floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, bench tops, even protective clothing, therefore, commonly contained the fibrous mineral. There is no doubt that asbestos was excellent at safeguarding against combustion or excessive heat. This strength, however, came with a tragic cost in terms of human health.
In general, amosite was the kind of asbestos utilized. Frequently referred to as "brown asbestos", amosite is especially good at resisting acidic chemicals like those used in oil refineries because of the iron molecules in its chemical composition. This amosite, in the form of asbestos-containing transite, was utilized in chemical plants and laboratories across the country for decades before it was outlawed as a construction material in the 1970s.
Like cement, asbestos transite could be sprayed onto pipes and ductwork, molded into working surfaces and laminated. This form of asbestos did not offer a health hazard while it stayed solid. With age, however, asbestos-containing transite grows prone to crumbling, enabling microscopic fibers to flake off into the air. That is, such asbestos is friable, or able to be pulverized by hand pressure alone. The insulation lining of laboratory ovens also often contained friable asbestos.
Why Friable Asbestos Is a Problem
Friable asbestos is hazardous because in this form the particles can be easily dispersed in the atmosphere. Diseases like asbestosis and cancer are known to result from breathing asbestos. Another uncommon, but generally deadly, asbestos-related disease is a type of cancer called mesothelioma. The pleural form of the illness, one which affects the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity, is the most common. Peritoneal and pericardial mesothelioma are caused by ingesting asbestos fibers, which happens when microscopic particles become airborne and settle on food or in beverages.
Mounting pressure from researchers and the media resulted in regulations controlling how to use asbestos. However, when facilities such as Shell's Deer Park refinery and chemical plant were constructed, asbestos was more commonplace. Before present-day regulations were enacted, workers often toiled without protective equipment in environments where asbestos particles clouded the atmosphere.
A Ticking Bomb
Asbestos-related diseases, in contrast to typical work-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about immediately following the incident, may take many, many years to develop. The symptoms of mesothelioma and asbestosis - shortness of breath, chest pain and a chronic cough - may often be confused with the symptoms of other, less serious conditions. It is very important, therefore, that all who worked in or lived around places like Shell's Deer Park refinery and chemical plant ask their doctors for a mesothelioma treatment guide.
Experimental treatments for the cancer are being developed in hopes to develop a mesothelioma cure, and early detection provides the patient the best chance of beating the once always-fatal disease.Sources
Loftis, Randy Lee - Shell Pollution at Deer Park Refinery (The Dallas Morning News, 23 June 2009)
Metzger, Luke - Clean Air News: Environmental Groups Sue Shell Oil for Clean Air Act Violations at Deer Park Refinery and Chemical Plant
Shell Corporate Website - About Deer Park
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal