Asbestos fulfilled a number of important roles in power plants for many years, thanks to its high resistance to heat, fire, electricity and corrosion. First of all, asbestos made an excellent thermal insulator of steam pipes and turbines. However, the natural mineral was also found insulating many electric conductors, including its use in yarn as a wrap for electrodes. In addition, cable and wiring in these facilities often contained asbestos, as did field-coil wrapping used on electrical machinery.
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In addition to the equipment, the facilities frequently contained asbestos insulation as well, as the risk of fire was generally high in these facilities which saw the presence of high amounts of electricity, heat or fossil fuels. These areas of asbestos use included the ceilings, walls and floors, where the material’s natural fire resistance protected workers. In addition, asbestos products could be found elsewhere, including as protective clothing for employees and fire blankets.
An article as early as 1963 warned that controls for asbestos exposure needed to be expanded beyond the manufacturing and mining industries to adequately protect all American workers. Some of the first employees to exhibit the symptoms of asbestos exposure in power plants were pipe fitters, who stripped asbestos off steam pipes, generating dangerous clouds of asbestos dust. Other workers that developed asbestos-related diseases included refinery workers, clerks, insulators and cleaners.
As asbestos sources deteriorated through physical disturbance and the strain of high temperatures, these fibers shed, collecting in employee work areas. When friable sources of asbestos detach, the tiny particles can suspend in the air for long periods of time, which poses a significant asbestos inhalation and ingestion threat. Furthermore, employees risked bringing these asbestos fibers home with them, as they can attach to clothing and hair, putting family members at risk for indirect exposure. Although secondhand asbestos exposure is less intense, scientists have discovered that any degree of asbestos exposure can cause related diseases to form.
Significant lawsuits eventually grew out of this past employee asbestos exposure. Several past sufferers of asbestos exposure filed lawsuits against former employers, claiming they were neither properly warned nor provided protective equipment during their careers. Furthermore, some of these former employees filing suit did not work directly with asbestos materials, yet underwent dangerous amounts of exposure anyway. Because of the close quarters and poor ventilation of many of these power plants, asbestos exposure was a potential threat to every employee inside, especially if no warning or protective equipment, such as respirators, was given.
Even today, significant numbers of former power plant employees come forward to file lawsuits after developing an asbestos-related disease. Thanks to such litigation, as well as Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Government pressure and regulation, asbestos use was curbed in these facilities in the late 1970s and 1980s. Around that time, asbestos materials began being removed from these facilities or encapsulated with sealant materials. In addition, new power plants were no longer built with this insulating fiber. Although a less obvious and greater long term risk to employees of these facilities than the immediate dangers present, the high number of illnesses and injuries resulting from this asbestos exposure helped purge asbestos from an industry that was once so reliant on the material.