The Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station is located near Monroe on the shores of Lake Erie. Construction on the present facility began in the early 1960s; an earlier unit operated on the site between 1957 and 1972. This unit, Fermi 1, suffered a partial meltdown in 1966 and was decommissioned in 1975. Fermi 2 was designed by GE; it commenced operations in 1988 and has a generative capacity of just under 1.1 gigawatts.
The unit is currently owned and operated by Detroit Edison. The company recently submitted a 17,000 page application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the construction of a third unit, which would employ a new technology developed by GE and would have a capacity of over 1.5 gigawatts. Review of this application is expected to take at least four years; if approved, it would be another six years before another operative unit would come online.
Because of its flame retardant characteristics and its usefulness as an electrical insulator, asbestos was used in virtually every industry – including the Fermi facility. While the use of asbestos saved millions of dollars in property damage as well as spared thousands from the agony of burn injuries, for many it resulted in a range of respiratory illnesses ranging from calcification of lung tissue to full-blown malignancies. According to a 2003 Puerto Rican study in which 1100 power plant workers participated, rates of asbestos disease may run as high as 13% among such workers.
The use of asbestos in building materials was gradually phased out in the 1980s, following the discovery of a forty-year cover-up on the part of the asbestos industry regarding the toxic hazards of its products. Today, there are strict worker safety rules regarding asbestos; however, before 1980 workers were exposed to it in various rooms, corridors, among steam pipes and conduits and from the machinery itself. Employees also took asbestos into their homes in their clothing and hair, resulting in secondary exposure among family members.
Former Fermi employees and their family members should advise their family physicians about the possibility of asbestos exposure and receive on-going health monitoring if this option is available to them.
Given its high resistance to transferring heat and electricity, asbestos could commonly be found throughout many work sites around the country. It is ironic that protecting lives was almost always one of the main justifications for utilizing asbestos in worksites because the outcome was actually to place employees at risk of serious illness or death due to asbestos exposure. The reason large numbers of people have become ill from illnesses including asbestosis and lung cancer is that when humans inhale strands of asbestos, the mineral infiltrates the lungs; once there, the sharp, microscopic spikes damage tissues. In addition, job-related asbestos exposure can lead to the extremely hard to treat form of cancer called mesothelioma, which develops as a tumor of the mesothelium, the tissue that lines the pleural cavity (pleural mesothelioma) or the stomach (peritoneal mesothelioma). While prognosis is usually grim, the cancer can be treated with mesothelioma chemotherapy by doctors such as Dr. David Sugarbaker in Boston, MA. at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Because science has shown the link between inhaling asbestos and illnesses like lung cancer, 21st-century laborers are protected by laws that control how asbestos is to be handled. People who worked near asbestos before such rules were implemented, however, usually spent their days in locations where asbestos was prevalent, and they as a rule were provided with little or no training regarding how to minimize risks when dealing with the substance. Spouses and children were also exposed to asbestos if employers failed to provide showers, as employees inadvertently transported asbestos dust home with them on their clothes or in their hair.
Men and women who were employed here in the past, as well as their family members, are encouraged to learn more about these health conditions and inform their healthcare professionals about their history of asbestos exposure, because the symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses can be difficult to distinguish from those of less serious conditions.Sources
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America. 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.
Waymarking.com. “Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station (Fermi II), near Monroe, MI.”