An 80 year old woman who once worked at a power station in Wales known to contain asbestos, has recently died of mesothelioma. The coroner recorded the cause of death as ‘non-occupational’ asbestos exposure because the victim had previously declared to the Department of Work and Pensions that she had not been exposed to asbestos at work.

Tragically, many employees like the former power station worker, were also unlikely to have any asbestos awareness of the dangers of insulation if their occupation was not involved with the use of the deadly fibres, commonly used to line the hot water systems where they worked. The use of asbestos fibres as a highly durable insulation material capable of withstanding very high temperatures, was widely used throughout British industry and construction from the 1950s through to the 1970s and 80s.

Power stations… certain to contain asbestos

Around 170,000 tons of all asbestos types were imported into the UK each year to be used in insulation and fireproofing products and there were more than 200 coal, oil or nuclear power stations in operation across England. Power stations, such as those built at Battersea, Didcot Ferrybridge, Eggborough, Drax and Aberthaw in Wales were almost certain to contain asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).

There were three primary areas in which asbestos was commonly used in the construction of power plants – the buildings themselves, machinery and electrical wiring. Asbestos insulation was used to line or ‘lag’ pipes, while large generators, boilers, steam pipes and turbines were often simply spray-coated. In addition, pipe fittings contained gaskets made from asbestos sheets, often cut to fit at the time of installation.

Finally, moulded asbestos insulation protected the electrical wiring and large-scale conduits, which were insulated with blue “crocidolite” asbestos, selected for being specifically non-reactive and highly resistant to electrical current.

Insulation removed and applied by hand

Power station workers who was most vulnerable to asbestos exposure include those who were responsible for running and monitoring the boilers, generators and turbines and the operators of equipment, such as converters, transformers and circuit breakers, which controlled the actual flow of current.

When equipment needed to be regularly tested, the maintenance crew would have to physically remove the asbestos linings by manually cutting and sawing into the fibre linings. Fresh insulation would then be created by mixing asbestos fibres, cement and water in large buckets to form a paste and then applied by hand to the outside of the pipes. Insulators, pipefitters, electricians, welders and other workers often worked in close quarters where the working with asbestos released volumes of fibre dust particles into the atmosphere.

As a result, the exposure to asbestos and the breathing in of fibre dust could also simply occur because of being in the vicinity to where insulation lagging / maintenance was being carried out – even if the material was not being actually handled by a worker. Many mesothelioma victims comment in their written statements that they frequently worked in “air thick with asbestos dust”, which would stick to their skin, hair and clothes.

Asbestos-containing clothing

Ironically, personal protection in power stations was often provided by the wearing of asbestos-containing clothing to insulate the operators against the excessive temperatures. However, there was no protection for others employed on a power station site, such as female staff working in office/admin areas supplied by hot water pipes insulated with asbestos. It was also likely that office walls and ceilings were constructed with AIB (asbestos insulation board), commonly used throughout the building industry from the 1940s onwards.

Coinciding with the first asbestos ban introduced in the mid 1980s, many of the older types of power stations were also closed down as new forms of energy generation began to be used. However, a small number continued up to the 1990s and there are still one or two in existence today.

One in ten at a power station diagnosed with mesothelioma

In 1989, measurements taken of asbestos in the air inside and outside of selected power stations showed low fibre counts but higher concentrations were found in storerooms where asbestos was deposited and handled. Of the 77 insulation workers employed at an electric power station in London who suffered with asbestos related disease, eight cases – nearly one in ten were diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Concerns have also been expressed about the number of former construction workers from a Somerset nuclear power station who have died as a result of exposure to asbestos, including mesothelioma. The local coroner reported that in cases where industrial disease was recorded, 26 deaths caused as a result of asbestos exposure occurred during a 14 years period.

The number of mesothelioma cases has actually increased almost four-fold since the first UK asbestos ban was introduced in the mid 1980s. The government recently suggested that the number of deaths from mesothelioma over the next 25 years is expected to be between 49,000 to 58,000, based on current projections, and a potential total of 125,000 deaths from all diseases caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.