Aluminum salts have been used since Greco-Roman times as a medication and a dye fixative. As a metal, its properties have been known since 1808. By the late 1800s, this useful metal was regularly used for artistic purposes, such as ceremonial helmets, statues and the cap atop the Washington monument. Despite the fact that it is one of the most common elements on the planet however, its value was equal to that of silver due to the expense and difficulty of extracting and producing it. This was because of its extremely high melting point of 2000 degrees Centigrade (about 4200 degrees Fahrenheit).
In 1889, Charles Martin Hall of Oberlin, Ohio patented a monetarily inexpensive method of extracting aluminum through a chemical process, essentially allowing for processing at much lower temperatures. The patent gave Hall enough credibility to interest serious investors; the ALuminum COmpany of America, eventually shortened to “Alcoa,” was founded in 1907. Within a few years, the cost of aluminum dropped from several dollars an ounce to a few cents per pound.
Although aluminum is inexpensive, producing it is an energy-intensive process and dependent on cheap electricity. This was a major factor contributing to U.S. victory in World War II; Germany and Japan simply lacked the energy generation capacity. It is also a reason why aluminum recycling has such importance.
Once alumina is precipitated out of raw bauxite ore, it is dissolved in a cryolite bath. This part of the process takes place within large, carbon-lined cells known as pots. Electrical current is passed through this solution, which is heated to around 980 degrees C (around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit). This causes the actual aluminum metal to separate from the alumina. The liquid is then siphoned off.
Delmer Smith was employed in one such pot room at an Alcoa plant in Wenatchee, Washington. After 29 years, he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma (A rare, extremely fatal, form of asbestos cancer that affects the lining of various organs). He died on 11 May, 1996 – one day after a jury had awarded his family $8 million in damages.
The defendant in this case was not Alcoa, but a company called Synkoloid. A division of the ARTRA group, Synkaloid had long been a manufacturer of asbestos products – primarily patching, paint and insulation. As a result, there were over 46,000 asbestos lawsuits pending against the company as of 31 December 2000.
The point of the story here is to demonstrate liability. Although Delmer Smith was employed in an aluminum plant, it was not Alcoa that was ultimately held liable, but rather the outside manufacturer of a product that was used within the facility – in this case, Synkoloid.
Asbestos products are sometimesused wherever heat is involved in an industrial product. In the case of Alcoa’s pot rooms, the purpose was to insulate workers from the tremendous heat involved in extracting the aluminum. In the case of the Wenatchee plant, this insulation had become friable, causing asbestos dust inside the room in which Delmer Smith worked.
It should be kept in mind that it was corporations of the asbestos industry, not necessarily their corporate customers, which engaged in a immoral conspiracy of silence regarding the dangers of their product. This is why a person who has contracted mesothelioma as a result of industrial employment should try to learn as much as possible about any third-party asbestos products used on the premises, including the original vendor and manufacturer. Several law firms today are engaged in the development and maintenance of databases of such information.
Over the past several years, Alcoa and other industrial operations have engaged F. Scott Industries, a West Coast company specializing in the abatement of asbestos and other toxic materials. Those who have worked in an industrial setting and believe they have been exposed to asbestos should gather as much documentation as possible about the use of such products in their workplace.