Power Plants and Asbestos

power plants asbestosEver since the Industrial Revolution, power plants have supplied power to our homes, providing us with heat and electricity. Technological giants of their time, some of these plants still generate power by old, turn of the century equipment that has been remodeled and refitted with modern equipment. However, while many of the machines creating this power may be new, many older generators and turbines are still used, carrying with them all the hazards of the old industry.

Asbestos Use

Because power plants involve the generation of electricity, they have always held potential fire hazards. In order to mitigate this risk, many builders decided to line the equipment, machinery, and plumbing with the naturally-occurring fire retardant asbestos.  Unfortunately, at that time most workers were not aware of the link between asbestos and a serious form of lung cancer called mesothelioma. Therefore, many workers can be exposed to asbestos when the materials that house it are disturbed or damaged. This damage releases the toxic fibers into the air, allowing for its absorption by the lungs.

Of particular danger are giant generators and turbines, which are typically lined with asbestos. Boilers and pipes are usually insulated with asbestos as well. Gaskets, valves, and seal pumps are also known to be sheathed in asbestos insulation. Even the floor, walls, and ceilings can contain trace amounts of asbestos, making it a danger not only to the technicians who maintain the machinery, but every worker who steps into the power plant.

Mesothelioma and Power Plant Employees

While power plant employees contract mesothelioma and other related diseases less frequently than individuals such as insulation workers that directly handled asbestos, these employees are still in danger of asbestos-related health problems.  A 1990 report in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine describes two cases of power plant employees who developed mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure in the workplace.  The first patient, a 72-year-old man, had worked at a power plant as a clerk for 31 years and showed signs of extensive pleural mesothelioma.  He died seven months after diagnosis.  The second patient worked at the same power plant as the first, though he was only 54 years old at the time of diagnosis.  Despite chemotherapeutic treatment, he died within a year.

The authors of the report state that workers who installed or repaired asbestos products were not the only power plant employees at risk of asbestos-related disease.  The first patient in particular shows the dangers of low-level but long-term exposure.  Studies of power plant workers in France and Italy also confirmed the risk to power plant employees.