The Crist Power Plant is located in northwest Pensacola on Governor's Bayou. The coal-fired facility first came online in January 1945 to serve the growing wartime needs of the nearby Naval Air Station. Initially, because of wartime material shortages, it was necessary to use a naval surplus generator mounted on pilings. Over the next thirty years however, several more permanent units were added. Today, Crist has four operational units generating 930 megawatts.
Asbestos has long been a hazard associated with power generation facilities. Asbestos was first established as a health hazard in the late 1930s; however, this information did not become available to the general public until 1977, when discovery of papers in the corporate offices of major asbestos-product manufacturer proved the existence of a four-decade conspiracy in the asbestos industry to suppress information about the health hazards of asbestos.
While asbestos was unlikely to affect the general public, power plant employees are among those industrial workers at greatest risk for developing asbestos diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. This was demonstrated in a 2003 Puerto Rican medical study, in which chest x-rays of 1100 power plant workers were taken and examined for abnormalities. After factoring out cigarette smoking, it was discovered that over 130 of the x-rays showed early signs of asbestos disease. According to industrial health and safety experts, power generation plants are among the worst industrial worksites for asbestos exposure.
The reason is not only because asbestos is an excellent flame retardant; it is an excellent form of electrical insulation as well, particularly the “blue” crocidolite variety. Such asbestos was used in several places:
- electrical cloth
- fire doors
- pipe and conduit lagging
- work surfaces
Crocidolite is considered an exceptionally potent form of asbestos; its hard, spear-like fibers can drill straight through lung and other tissues, causing cells to mutate at the DNA level and become malignant.
The tragedy is compounded when one considers secondary exposure to family members. This resulted when power plant workers unwittingly brought asbestos fibers home in their hair and on their clothing.
Those who were themselves employed at a power plant or had a family member who worked at one prior to 1980 should tell their primary care physician and arrange to get frequent checkups if possible. Although mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose, recent advances in biotechnology allow pathologists to detect the early signs of such cancers when they are still treatable and mesothelioma prognosis can be hopeful.
This location was one of thousands of factories, mills, power plants and worksites that, in the first two-thirds of the 1900s, utilized the mineral asbestos because of its ability to resist flame. Although asbestos' strength as an insulator certainly protected people from injury and even death, the long-term consequences of its use were devastating: far too many people developed serious illness due to inhalation of or other contact with asbestos. The reason large numbers of workers have become ill from illnesses such as asbestosis and cancer is that when humans inhale asbestos fibers, the mineral remains in internal organs; once there, the sharp, microscopic spikes damage organs. Also, job-related exposure to asbestos is the primary cause of the extremely hard to treat form of cancer called mesothelioma disease, which affects the cells that line the pleural cavity (pleural mesothelioma) or the stomach (peritoneal mesothelioma).
Now, we are much more knowledgeable about the risks of being exposed to asbestos, and government regulations protect people who work with or near this dangerous substance. However, in the past, laborers without protective equipment often toiled in areas filled with airborne asbestos. Moreover, workers took asbestos particles to their homes in their clothes and hair when decontamination procedures weren't provided at the workplace; the consequence of this was that the potentially deadly mineral also put at risk wives and husbands of those who worked with asbestos.
Diseases such as mesothelioma often take decades to appear, and symptoms can be difficult to distinguish from those of other conditions, so men and women who were employed at such facilities at any time in the past, as well as those who lived with them, should speak with their doctors about their history of asbestos exposure.Sources
Bowker, Michael. Deadly Deception. (New York: Touchstone, 2003).
Cabrera-Santiago, Manuel et al. “Prevalence of Asbestos-Related Disease Among Electrical Power Generation Workers in Puerto Rico.” Presentation at American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, 2007.
Pensapedia. "James F. Crist Generating Plant."