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Asbestos Exposure in Power Plants

Power plant workers had a high level of occupational exposure to asbestos because they came in contact with it from more than one source.

Given the huge amounts of electricity power plants generate, there is always the possibility of fire. When these plants were constructed, the builders used asbestos-containing floor and ceiling tiles, pipe coverings, and walls so that they would be fire-resistant. As long as the asbestos remained intact, it wasn’t a danger to power plant workers. However, these items were frequently damaged during routine daily operation of the power plants, which caused the release of asbestos fibers into the air that could easily be inhaled and ingested. That was a significant source of asbestos exposure for these workers.

Power Plant Equipment was Fire-Proofed with Asbestos

Asbestos was a major component in most plant machinery, including generators, turbines, boilers and gaskets. While it did provide protection from fire safety hazard, it created a health hazard because much of this asbestos-containing material was friable.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants” (NESHAP), friable asbestos-containing material (ACM), is defined as any material containing more than one percent asbestos that, when dry, can be crumbled, pulverized or reduced to powder by hand pressure. That means that repairing machinery that contained friable asbestos would break it apart, sending fibers into the surrounding air.

In addition, power plant operators often cut, sawed, or sanded asbestos- containing insulating materials for boilers and generators as part of maintenance without the benefit of protective equipment. This exposed them to additional fibers.

Non-Friable Material also Poses a Risk

The EPA defines non-friable asbestos-containing material (ACM) as any material containing more than one percent asbestos that, when dry, cannot be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by hand pressure. It typically contains a binder or an element that causes it to harden such as cement, asphalt, or vinyl. However, non-friable asbestos containing material is not without its problems. It has the potential for the same kind of hazard as friable asbestos during repairs.

Recent Study Shows High Level of Asbestos Exposure in Power Plants

In a study titled “Retrospective Exposure Assessment to Airborne Asbestos among Power Industry Workers”, published June 25, 2010 in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, researchers examined past levels of exposure to airborne asbestos in power plants so that this information could be used to create a strategy for early detection of diseases associated with asbestos exposure. The study was conducted among German power plant workers, but it is considered indicative of conditions in power plants in general.

The researchers provided questionnaires between March 2002 and the end of 2006 to 8, 632 former power plant workers who had been exposed to asbestos. Of that population, 7,775 responses were available for evaluation.

What they discovered was that although the group as a whole was heavily exposed to airborne asbestos, certain occupations within the group had an even higher exposure level than the others. In fact, the power generation group had the highest level of exposure followed by gas supply workers.

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