Asbestos in Washington
Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals commonly used as insulation, roofing shingles, floor tiles, paper products, and coatings. Breathing in the mineral’s harmful fibers can cause deadly illnesses like mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Nearly 3,000 Washington residents have died from either mesothelioma or asbestosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2015, the annual death rate for mesothelioma exceeded 20 deaths per million people each year.
Several industries throughout the state used the mineral in many industrial capacities. In the more mountainous areas around Washington, there are natural rock deposits where the mineral can also be found. Chrysotile asbestos can be found in serpentine rock deposits in the northeast portions of the state.
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Washington Workplaces With Known Exposure
Employees in Washington are vulnerable to asbestos exposure in multiple industries.
Since World War II, Washington’s economy relied on the production of aluminum. Because the process of aluminum production requires significant levels of heat, workers used asbestos as fire protection.
Five major asbestos mines make up the majority of what’s mined in Washington. The state’s Cascade, Okanogan, and Rocky Mountain ranges contain an abundance of contaminated rock formations. Specifically, serpentine rocks.
Oil companies often used asbestos materials to control the hazards of petroleum. The fireproofing abilities of the mineral prompt oil refineries to use it in overcoats, hoods, and gloves of employees. Mobil, Texaco, Shell Oil, Chevron Chemical, and BP Oil are all known to have exposed employees.
Power plants in Washington used asbestos around wires, pipes, generators, and boilers as fire protection. From the 1950s through the 1970s, nuclear power plants like Columbia Generating Station and the Hanford Nuclear Facility both exposed Washington employees.
Shipbuilding is common along Washington’s pacific coast. The Northwest Pacific Coast has several ports along the coastline, including in Seattle, WA. Other shipyards located in the state include Talbott Shipyard, Voyage Repair Station, and Kaiser Shipyard. Each shipyard contained asbestos in its vessels, resulting in extensive exposure.
The timber industry in Washington makes up a significant amount of the State’s economy. Paper and pulp mills throughout the state used asbestos-containing materials to manufacture products. Machinery, drying felts, and adhesives used to make paper all could have contained the mineral. Commonly known timber and paper companies include Scott Paper Company, E. K. Wood Lumber Company, Anderson Middleton Lumber Company, and Weyerhauser Timber Company.
With over 100 miles of coastline, the state’s western border is home to 26 shipyards, a few of which are contaminated with the toxin.
Bremerton Naval Shipyard
After starting out as a repair site in the late 1800s, the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, also known as Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, began building naval ships during World War I. Since then, the shipyard has built and repaired numerous asbestos-filled vessels. Both veterans and civilian workers were being exposed for decades.
Duwamish Shipyard began operation in 1939 in Seattle. The shipyard built and repaired different types of commercial ships. During its peak, the company employed two hundred workers. During its operation, workers were exposed to the carcinogen inside the lining of numerous vessels.
After the United States entered World War II, Henry Kaiser built the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, WA. The shipyard constructed over 1,500 ships during the war. Workers used asbestos throughout each vessel, resulting in significant exposure to military and civilian employees.
High-Risk Areas for Exposure
Some high-risk areas in Washington where the mineral has been found.
Hanford Nuclear Reservation
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation contained four sites listed on the EPA’s National Priorities List (NPL). One of the areas, called the Hanford 100-Area, covered 586 square miles. On the land, nine nuclear reactors contaminated local groundwater and buildings. The last reactor shut down in 1988 after the nearby Columbia River became contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemicals. During operation, workers also buried contaminated solid wastes on-site, creating contaminated soil and sludge made up of heavy metals and asbestos.
The EPA divided the 100-Area into six reactor areas to address the site contamination. In 1996, the wings on the reactors were torn off, and tons of asbestos, steel, copper, and contaminated soil were removed. Since then, over 18 million tons of contaminated soil has been removed. Pump systems were put into place to treat local water and reduce levels of contaminants.
The Sumas River and Swift Creek in Whatcom County, Washington were a significant source of exposure. Swift Creek, which flows into the Sumas River, contains high levels of naturally occurring asbestos located in riverbed sediment.
According to the U.S. Geological Society, a 2016 report stated that sediment in the Sumas River contains up to 37 percent chrysotile asbestos. When water levels are low, the harmful fibers can become airborne, putting local residents in danger. Some researchers believe that Asbestos-Talc Products of Washington Inc., who operated a nearby quarry, may be the cause of the asbestos deposits.
Asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma are complex. To learn more about the hazardous mineral and how it causes illnesses, download our free mesothelioma guide.