Alcoa Aluminum (Pittsburgh)

One of the world’s largest producers of aluminum, Alcoa is headquartered in Pittsburgh and New York City and operates manufacturing and smelting facilities in over 40 countries. From its inception in 1888, Alcoa has grown steadily and has a long history of technological breakthroughs allowing for rapid production of primary and fabricated aluminum for almost every commercial industry on the planet.

Charles Martin Hall perfected the process of aluminum smelting in 1886, about the same time the French scientist Paul Héroult was finalizing experiments that ran electrical current through a mixture of cryolite and aluminum oxide. Pure aluminum is a byproduct of this procedure, and today the Hall-Héroult process is still the only method in which fine grade aluminum is produced. Hall and his partner, Alfred E. Hunt, established the Pittsburgh Reduction Company in 1888. Several plants were opened in various locations, and by 1903 the company, after a legal settlement with Hall’s past employer, was able to use the production patent and become the only legal supplier of aluminum in the country.

Alcoa is the acronym of Aluminum Company of America, the name given to the company in 1907. It was not known as Alcoa until 1999. In the 1930s, Alcoa was charged with monopolization by the U.S. Justice Department, but this case was settled six years later. Today Alcoa employs about 60,000 workers at all of its production facilities, and enjoys annual revenues in excess of $20 billion. The company has diversified into the fields of specialty chemicals, materials for the aerospace industry, and has other major subsidiaries, including Kawneer and Howmet Castings.

In its early years, Alcoa used coal to fuel its smelting operations and produced an enormous amount of pollutants. Later emissions control procedures reduced this volume, but the company still ranks in the top 20 U.S. firms as an emitter of airborne particles. Alcoa also employed the use of asbestos at its many smelting locations. Asbestos was once commonly used as a protective insulating material for walls and ceilings, and was especially popular as an inexpensive fire retardant when included in the construction of heated surface coverings.

In the smelting business, alumina is subjected to extremely high heat after undergoing electrolysis, and the reduction chambers from which pure aluminum byproduct is extracted reaches in excess of 1700° Fahrenheit. In addition to its use insulating against such high temperatures in the actual facility walls and ceilings, workers were also provided with protective clothing that contained asbestos fibers, allowing countless employees to become exposed to airborne particles while employed at Alcoa.

Asbestosis and mesothelioma are two of the health conditions caused by asbestos exposure. Symptoms of mesothelioma, an incurable cancer, do not appear for years or even decades after exposure. Increased government regulation has since prompted the removal of this hazardous substance from workplaces around the world, including Alcoa.