Freed from a chemical fix

Times Staff Writer

Eight hours a day, five days a week, for 15 years, Juan Chacon leaned over a vat of hot, frothing chemicals inside a factory along the weedy banks of the Los Angeles River. His back was always sore, and even though he wore a respirator, his head pounded.

Chacon dipped racks of metal sheets into the toxic solvents to strip off grease and dirt. Elsewhere in the factory, workers used volatile inks, while others scrubbed printers with powerful cleaners, the noxious fumes wafting through the air.

Since the 1940s, Nelson Nameplate Co. had used these potent solvents in crafting its products, from the glossy, ruby-red nameplates on Callaway golf clubs to the electronic switches on Baxter insulin pumps.


Everyone else in the industry relied on toxic compounds, too. Nobody seemed inclined to mess with a method that worked.

But Tom Cassutt, Nelson Nameplate’s co-president, was disturbed. He knew his factory’s chemicals packed a triple punch. They posed risks to his workers and his neighbors. They helped create the smog that inflamed the lungs of millions of people in L.A., including his asthmatic daughter. And high in the atmosphere, the hole in the Earth’s ozone layer was growing.

Cassutt realized that he, as a factory owner, deserved some of the blame.

Solvents were bad for business too. Nelson Nameplate spent almost $100,000 a year to purchase them, and another $10,000 to get rid of the tons of hazardous waste left behind.

It was a cycle of dependency -- a chemical fix -- that struck Cassutt as insane. “We were convinced that there had to be a better way,” he said.

It took three years of experimentation and a $120,000 investment, but Nelson Nameplate finally did find a better way.

Teaming with the nonprofit Institute for Research and Technical Assistance, Cassutt found a water-based detergent. Then he commissioned a custom, automated washing machine. After a lot of trial and error, he found the right combination that worked for cleaning metal.

Today, the 250-gallon vat of 1,1,1-trichlorethane Chacon leaned over is gone, replaced essentially with soap and water. Employees just slide the metal sheets onto a conveyor belt and they come out cleaner than they used to.

It worked so well that Cassutt didn’t stop there.

The company converted its lithographic and screen printers -- used to make membrane switches, devices that turn on electronic equipment -- to water-based solvents with 75% fewer smog-causing fumes, and then replaced two-thirds of his high-solvent inks with pollution-free ultraviolet inks.

Nelson Nameplate is not only greener but more profitable. In the last 10 years, its income has doubled while its smog-causing emissions have plummeted 90%, Cassutt said. The $120,000 investment was paid off in just two years through savings in buying chemicals.

“There were times when we literally tried 30 different substances and it was the 31st one that worked. It does require a commitment to stay the course,” Cassutt said. “But it’s more than paid for itself. If you can figure out how to get the toxics out of your business, the economic justification is there.”

Today, lithographic printers are required by the South Coast Air Quality Management District to reduce solvent use. The new rules came two years after Cassutt did it voluntarily.

“There are very few companies that take voluntary steps to clean up their plants,” said Katy Wolf, a former Rand Corp. scientist who directs the Glendale-based Institute for Research and Technical Assistance.

“Most don’t have time, they’re busy, they’re trying to make a living. Tom Cassutt certainly is progressive, without question. He’s different from other CEOs.”

Chacon, now metal supervisor at Nelson Nameplate, can’t imagine ever returning to the old, dangerous way of cleaning metal.

“It was terrible,” he said. “But now we have a new environment here: just soap and water. It was a big change that helped the environment and helped the company.”