Historical Asbestos Use in New Orleans

Early History

New Orleans has always been an important city for trade because if its location near the mouth of the Mississippi River.  The city as it exists today was founded by the French in 1718, though it passed to Spanish rule in 1763, after the Seven Years War.  However, the territory was once again ceded to France in 1800 and sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase three years later.  These changes in government, the city’s function as a port of trade, and an influx of Haitian refugees in the early part of the 19thcentury gave New Orleans a diverse cultural makeup.

20th Century History

Like many other cities, New Orleans became a place of growing industry in the 20thcentury, becoming the home to many manufacturing, oil drilling, and shipbuilding facilities.  Avondale Shipyards, located on the west bank of the Mississippi, has been in business since 1938, and produced a number of barges and other vessels for the U.S. Navy during and after World War II.  Unfortunately, the shipbuilding industry is notorious for its historical use of asbestos as an insulating and fireproofing material.  Many former shipyard workers have developed asbestos-related diseases as a result of occupational exposure to the material.

Vermiculite History in New Orleans

Vermiculite, another mineral also used in insulation, often appears in underground deposits along with asbestos, leading to the high chance that this material, safe in itself, is contaminated with the toxin.  Tainted vermiculite from mines in Libby, Montana, was brought to W.R. Grace and Company’s New Orleans factory for processing between the years of 1965 and 1989.  Workers at this plant may have been exposed to asbestos fibers and dust in the course of their jobs, because working with the vermiculite releases these fibers into the air. This presents an especially great risk in the enclosed environments of factories or industrial structures.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the recent closure of the W.R. Grace factory, asbestos use is not an entirely historical phenomenon in New Orleans.  According to the Louisiana Weekly, the city imported 123,158 tons of asbestos-contaminated ore between 1948 and 1993, and an additional 26 tons of the substance had arrived mere days before the arrival of Hurricane Katrina.  In the EPA’s response to the devastation wrought by the hurricane, it warned that any structure built before 1975 may contain asbestos, making it a threat when destroyed.