Asbestos Intransigence 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



A report entitled Chlorine and Building Materials - A Global Inventory of Production Technologies, Markets, and Pollution (the report) released at the end of last month (July, 2018)1 provided a wealth of information on the chlorine production industry (the industry) in Africa, the Americas and Europe. Our interest in this industrial sector stems from the role played by its stakeholders in promoting outdated asbestos technology and forestalling restrictions on the use of asbestos diaphragms in the chlor-alkali process in Latin and North America and Europe despite evidence documenting the concomitant risk to human health and the environment.

According to the report cited above “chlor-alkali cells using asbestos diaphragms release asbestos into the air and landfills.

  • In pollution reports filed from 2012 to 2016, three plants in Louisiana and one in Texas reported releasing asbestos out of stacks into the air.
  • Current asbestos demand suggests that the industry generates about 300 tons of asbestos waste per year in the US.
  • In a plant in Poland, concentrations of asbestos in the workspace air routinely exceeded up to 30 times the occupational exposure limits.
  • Asbestos that is not released during production is usually landfilled at the end of service life, which can be anywhere from 6 months to 10 years.”2

In the US, it has been estimated that the chlorine industry releases 300+ tons of solid asbestos waste annually which is deposited at landfills. Incidents of environmental asbestos pollution by three chlor-alkali plants belonging to Occidental Chemical in Texas and Louisiana and one facility owned by Westlake Chemical in Louisiana have been reported.

Despite asbestos ban regulations enacted by the European Union in 1999,3 sustained and intense efforts by vested interests succeeded in achieving a series of EU derogations, the most recent of which allowed for the continued use of chrysotile (white) asbestos in diaphragms for electrolysis installations until July 1, 2025.4 During public consultations on the asbestos exemption in Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Annex XVII in 2015, numerous objections were raised by The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which supported an immediate end of the current derogation:

“The two last companies in the EU using chrysotile diaphragms in existing electrolysis installations have already been given more than 15 years to switch to asbestos free technologies since the adoption of Directive 1999/77/EC. All other companies in the European chlor-alkali sector have already complied with the requirements of the directive and have abandoned the use of asbestos technologies. Today, it cannot be denied that asbestos-free alternatives are available for chlorine, caustic soda or hydrogen production including for AAK and Dow Chemical. These two companies have finally started the process of replacement of asbestos diaphragms. This is probably due the availability of more cost-effective technologies, the international campaigns for a global ban on asbestos use and production and the increasing regulatory pressure in the EU…

ETUC is therefore of the opinion that the final amendment to the existing asbestos restriction in REACH Annex XVII should aim at speeding up the ongoing substitution of these obsolete technologies in the two last EU companies using them to finally achieve a real total ban on manufacture, marketing and use of asbestos in Europe.”5

In point of fact, as of July 2018 the exception in Annex XVII is only applicable to Europe’s largest chlor-alkali plant in Stade, Germany belonging to the Dow Chemical Company Ltd. as other EU chlorine production facilities have either closed or converted to membrane technology. 6

In Brazil, the Dow Chemical Company Ltd. is the country’s largest chlorine producer – accounting for 26.5% of annual output – and the only one still using asbestos technology at its facility in Aratu, Bahia.7 Dow challenged the new ban asbestos law in Bahia State in order to continue using asbestos diaphragms; on April 11, 2018 this challenge was overwhelmingly rejected by the Legislative Assembly of Bahia State. Contravening the law, Dow continues to use asbestos diaphragms alleging that the legal situation remains ambiguous; the company is being sued by labor prosecutors for its trangression.

In the US, asbestos diaphragms are used in 11 chlor-alkali plants (including 7 of the 12 largest plants), and account for 45% of national chlorine production. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), “the chloralkali industry, which uses asbestos to manufacture semipermeable diaphragms that prevent chlorine generated at the anode of an electrolytic cell from reacting with sodium hydroxide generated at the cathode, accounted for nearly 100% of asbestos mineral consumption in 2017, based on bill of lading information obtained from a commercial trade database.”8 Between 2013 and 2017, an average of just over 500 tons of asbestos was used per year.

Olin Corporation, which in 2015 purchased all of Dow Chemical’s chlor-alkali and vinyl business in the US and globally,9 and Occidental Chemical Corporation – the two largest chlorine producers in the Americas – mostly use asbestos diaphragms. According to the new report:

“An estimated 75% of Occidental’s chlorine is produced via asbestos diaphragm cell. Combined, Olin and Occidental own an estimated 83% of asbestos diaphragm chlorine capacity in North and South America.”

Olin and Occidental are members of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) – formerly called the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association – a trade association representing the interests of American chemical companies. It came as no surprise to read an ACC communique dated August 24, 2016 lauding the huge successes achieved by US chlorine companies in ensuring “the safe use of asbestos for its employees” and in “minimizing [asbestos] releases.” The letter by Judith Nordgren, Managing Director of the ACC’S Chlorine Chemistry Division, reassured the EPA that: “The chlor-alkali industry supported the strong regulation of asbestos and has worked for many years to ensure the safe use of asbestos for its employees and its operations.”10

No doubt the same message was transmitted during meetings to discuss regulatory reforms regarding asbestos use under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) which EPA personnel had in January and March 2017,11 on September 6 & 14 and October 30, 2017 with representatives of the chlorine producers including Olin Chemical, Occidental Chemical Corporation and their trade association: the American Chemistry Council.12 The fact that Dr. Nancy B. Beck – who had been employed from 2012-2017 as an executive at the American Chemistry Council – was appointed in May, 2017 as Deputy Assistant Administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention would in all probability facilitate future chemical industry access to decision-makers tasked not only with TSCA reforms but also with the administration’s roll-back of environmental and health and safety safeguards.

Either individually or in concert with industry trade associations and/or other vested interests, chlorine producers have been proactively lobbying state agencies, national governments and regional bodies on three continents for decades to maintain a status quo which reaps them large rewards at the expense of so many others. Asbestos-free alternatives are available and are being used successfully around the world in chlor-alkali production. There is no excuse for further derogations or delays. The future is asbestos-free.

August 6, 2018


1 Health Building Network. Chlorine and Building Materials A Global Inventory of Production Technologies, Markets, and Pollution. July 2018.

2 ibid.

3 The EU asbestos ban was mandated in 1999 in Annex 1 of Directive 76/769/EEC; it became effective throughout all member states on January 1, 2005. During consultations regarding the EU’s chrysotile asbestos prohibitions, the trade group Euro Chlor – a European association of chlor-alkali process plant operators – had argued that the chlorine industry should be a “special case” because: the risk of asbestos exposure within the industry would be very low; asbestos diaphragms would be produced in a closed process on-site and would not be marketed; more time was needed to develop satisfactory substitutes; failure to do so could lead to explosions.
In fact, industry's motivation was purely economic; although suitable alternatives were already available, avoiding the costs associated with making the transition to asbestos-free technology was industry's prime goal.
Kazan-Allen L. European Asbestos Conference: Policy, Health and Human Rights. January 19, 2006.

4 ECHA. ANNEX XVII TO REACH – Conditions of Restriction. August 30, 2017.

5 European Trade Union Confederation comments on the draft opinion of the Committee for Socio-economic Analysis (SEAC). February 8, 2015.
Also see: Response to comments on the SEAC draft Opinion on the Annex XV dossier proposing restrictions on
EC number: - CAS number: 12001-29-5; 132207-32-0. March 9, 2015.

6 Chlor-alkali plants in Ludwigshafen and Llsdorf, Germany continue using mercury cells under an indefinite EU exemption.

7 In 2004, asbestos-containing diaphragms were used for 72% of all chlorine production in Brazil.
Kazan-Allen L. Parliamentary Asbestos Seminar 2018. British Asbestos Newsletter, Issue 107. Summer 2018.

8 USGS. Asbestos Statistics and Information.

9 Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Environmental Health Strategy Center Healthy Building Network.
Comments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the Scope of its Risk Evaluation for the TSCA Work Plan Chemical: ASBESTOS CAS Reg. No. 1332-21-4. March 15, 2017

10 Letter from Judith Nordgren, Managing Director, Chlorine Chemistry Division to EPA. August 24, 2016

11 EPA. Problem Formulation of the Risk Evaluation for Asbestos. May, 2018.

12 Asbestos Use Outreach Meeting Between EPA, Occidental Chemical Corporation and the American Chemistry Council (ACC). September 6, 2017.
Asbestos Use Outreach Meeting Between EPA, Olin Chemical and the American Chemistry Council (ACC). September 14, 2017.
Asbestos Use Outreach Meeting Between EPA, Chemours, Branham Corp. and the American Chemistry Council (ACC). October 30, 2017.
On April 11, 2017, there was a conference call between EPA personnel and Axial/Westlake “to discuss their use of asbestos diaphragms at their Plaquemine, LA plant (EPA-HQ-OPPT-2016-0736- 0070).”



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