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A life saver produced in Asturias

Part of the synthesis process of acetylsalicylic acid.
Part of the synthesis process of acetylsalicylic acid. / JUAN CARLOS ROMÁN
  • In the 1980s, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer decided to produce all the acetylsalicylic acid it sells in the world, 20 million aspirins a day, at its factory in Spain

It seems a bit strange that a factory would be called after one place when it is actually located in another, but that is the case in Asturias, where there is a long-running dispute over the Bayer plant. Its official name is Bayer La Felguera, but it is situated in Lada, not La Felguera. In reality, only a bridge over the Nalón river separates the two.

A life saver produced in Asturias

Both places are part of the municipality of Langreo, where the German pharmaceutical set up the business 77 years ago. In 2014 the firm decided it was going to use this plant to synthesise all the acetylsalicylic acid it uses to create its aspirins.

'Aspirin' is the brand name which is commonly used for all preparations made with this active ingredient, in the same way as people refer to 'Kleenex' for all tissues.

Aspirin is what Bayer makes, but there are numerous other companies all over the planet that prepare similar products using the same active ingredient.

Hundreds of lorries leave the factory at La Felguera - or rather, at Lada - carrying sacks of between 50 and 800 kilos of the powder needed to make 20 million tablets a day, which are sent all over the world. These tablets have also travelled to the moon, as part of the first-aid kit on the Apollo XI.

A life saver produced in Asturias

This is the only place where they are made. In the 1980s, the German firm Bayer divided its production between the factory in Asturias and another in Wuppertal, in Germany, where the company first began in 1863.

"The process was much more effective in our factory," says the manager of the Spanish plant, Jorge Álvarez, who has worked in different departments since 1996.

"The quality was the same, but the Germans could see that things were done more effectively here. They called it the 'Carlón process', after Julián Carlón, a former manager of the plant. They decided to close the German plant. It must be said that we are here today because of the people who worked here in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, during the dictatorship, when everything was more difficult. There were 400 workers then. Today, we have 100 staff of our own and 50 subcontracted from outside companies.

A life saver produced in Asturias

Álvarez has an explanation as to why it is called La Felguera and not Lada, although it won't please everybody this side of the bridge.

"When Bayer set up here in 1942, all the factories were in La Felguera. There was no room for such a high concentration, and even this area wasn't called Lada then. Although they had to move to the other side of the river, everything in the Bayer factory was in the name of La Felguera, and that's how it stayed," he says.

Things have changed a great deal over time. The German company went to Langreo because of the coal mines and the iron and steel industry, because the acetic anhydride and salicylic acid needed to create the active ingredient were produced from carbon. Now they are obtained from petroleum now.

"This area had economic potential; the industry was the most advanced in Spain, but little by little everything closed down and we and another factory were all that was left," he says.

One member of staff, 57-year-old Tomás González González, has spent all his life there, because he was born within the factory walls, in one of the homes provided for workers.

"Nowadays, things are different, but in those days it was normal for whole families to be employed: parents, children, brothers... my father started in 1949, when he was 19. I started at the same age, and I've been working here for 38 years. You finished school and came to work here. My sister works here as well," he says.

He remembers the febrile activity when he was a child and used to go outside to play in the same place that his father earned his living.

"Imagine 400 people working here, how busy it was. In the 1960s there was a restructuring and a lot of jobs went, but we are still carrying on while all the other industry in this area is disappearing. I remember as a child that there was noise everywhere, from the mines and the steel factories. All that died, later on. People were unemployed, we were one of the worst-hit areas. All that's left is the coal thermal power plant, which is going to close, and us. And now, our 100 workers produce all the aspirins that are consumed on the planet. In comparison with a multinational we're tiny, but look at our worldwide reach," he says with a certain pride.

The golden age

From Langreo, the acetylsalicylic acid in powder form is taken to the eight centres that Bayer has around the world, in countries with the biggest market volume. At present the USA tops the list, followed by China, which is where they are compressed into pills and soluble, chewable and granulated versions. Later, they are distributed across the five continents.

A life saver produced in Asturias

In Spain, aspirin had a golden age; every first-aid box used to contain it, almost up to the end of the 20th century. However, the start of the 21st brought with it other names which are now often used in self-medication, mainly ibuprofen and paracetamol, which are also cheaper.

Then came haemorrhages and stomach problems such as ulcers which can be caused by acetylsalicylic acid.

Children's aspirin stopped being prescribed to treat high temperature or pain in under-16s in 2003, because it was associated with an uncommon but serious condition known as Reye's Syndrome, which sometimes occurs during flu or chickenpox and can even cause death.

With all this, aspirin consumption has been reducing in Spain, although at the factory in La Felguera, which is kept very busy meeting worldwide demand, they are not too worried about it.

As Jorge Álvarez explains, "Acetylsalicylic acid has two applications. On one hand there is its analgesic, antipyretic and anti-inflammatory effect, and on the other hand there's the way it works in preventing cardiovascular illnesses.

"The second aspect has grown a great deal in this country and elsewhere, while the analgesics are still made but not to such an extent because of strong competition from paracetamol and ibuprofen. However, altogether, our production is still increasing."

A life saver produced in Asturias

Jesús Aguilar, the president of the General Council of Official Pharmaceutical Colleges of Spain, has this to say:

"Aspirin is a medication which has been and still is often prescribed in Spain. I have to take it every day because I had a cardiac problem. However, as we have advanced, new molecules have emerged which have more or less the same effect in similar circumstances. Aspirin has beaten all records and continues to do so, as it has for the 120 years of its existence. As you can imagine, thorough studies have been carried out."

However, he insists that every drug is designed for a specific situation and that is why there are pharmacists, "to explain when paracetomol, aspirin or ibuprofen is best to use, because it's not just a case of someone having a headache but also other symptoms as well. And then they all have side effects. Aspirin can cause intestinal haemorrhages and stomach problems, but then so can ibuprofen. And ibuprofen and paracetamol can cause kidney or liver damage. Taking medication is important. People should always remember that these are drugs," he says.

Returning to the factory, phenol is needed to synthesise the active ingredient. This used to come from coal and now from petroleum, and acetic anhydride, from the same sources. Residues are generated by the processing of acetylsalicylic acid, or perhaps it would be better to say sub-products are generated, and that is the department in which Tomás González now works.

"I'm working on the distillation columns now; the production of aspirin generates residues which are reusable, like acetic acid, a type of vinegar which we don't consume but sell to chemical companies to use in cleaning or curing leather," he explains.

At home he rummaged around and found some old photos from where he grew up inside the factory walls. The interiors of the houses, from the time when there was a restaurant and bar for the workers; his mother sitting on the entrance steps; his father, looking very elegant in his role as head of department; and one of Tomás himself, aged 30, with a beard.

"This factory has always been very important. I know some people in Lada are annoyed that it is called La Falguera, but it's only a matter of which side of the bridge you are on. You're not really aware that there is any difference. It doesn't matter" he says. He is, however, aware that many wouldn't agree.