The Gerald Gentleman Station (GGS) is the largest electric energy generation plant in the state of Nebraska, located outside the town of Sutherland. Owned and operated by the Nebraska Public Power District, the facility runs two coal-fired units with a total generative capacity of over 1.36 gigawatts.
Coal-fired power plants are notorious for their toxic emissions, although steps are being taken to remedy this at several coal-fired plants around the nation. Asbestos poisoning is a common hazard at all power plants however.
Prior to 1980, virtually all industries made use of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). Asbestos insulation was employed anywhere heat, flame, electricity and corrosive chemicals posed a hazard. Over time, these materials became “friable” and gave off asbestos dust. The fibers were not only inhaled and ingested by employees, but became lodged in hair and clothing. In this fashion, asbestos fibers were introduced into the home, subjecting family members to secondary exposure.
The hazards of asbestos were known to medical science by the 1930s, but this information did not become available to the general public until the late 1970s. W.R. Grace, Inc., Johns-Manville, Raysbestos and other major corporations involved in the production and sale of ACMs engaged in a four-decade long conspiracy to suppress health information related to asbestos; this was exposed in the course of litigation in 1977.
A 2003 research study by doctors in Puerto Rico study published in 2007 confirms what industrial health and safety experts have been said for many years: power plants are a leading source of asbestos exposure. In the study, 1100 chest x-rays from power plant workers were examined; over 130 showed “abnormalities” suggesting the early stages of asbestos disease.
Asbestos-containing materials were used as insulation throughout the construction of power generating facilities as well as other industries where heat, flame, electricity and corrosive chemicals were a hazard. Over time, these materials became brittle and began to crumble into dust. These fibers were not only inhaled and ingested by employees, but became lodged in the hair and clothing as well, resulting in secondary exposure for family members.
Symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear for decades following initial asbestos exposure. Anyone who worked at the Gerald Gentleman facility as well as their family members should discuss this issue with their primary care physician. Thanks to recent tools made available by a Japanese biotech firm and recently approved by the FDA for use in the U.S., pathologists can now detect the markers of mesothelioma in its earliest stages when it is most treatable with mesothelioma chemotherapy from oncologists such as Dr. David Sugarbaker at Harvard University's Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
This installation was one of numerous factories, mills, power plants and worksites that, throughout the majority of the last century, used asbestos because of its ability to insulate against fire. It is ironic that protecting lives was typically one of the driving justifications for using asbestos in places because the outcome was actually to put employees in danger of serious illness due to asbestos exposure. The illnesses linked to asbestos exposure include asbestosis and cancer; the biggest chance of developing these conditions occurs when asbestos-containing materials become friable, releasing strands into the air where they are easy to inhale or ingest. In addition, a history of asbestos exposure can lead to the almost always fatal 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 (pericardial mesothelioma).
Because research has uncovered the relationship between asbestos exposure and conditions such as pleural plaques, 21st-century laborers are protected by health and safety statutes that prescribe how asbestos is used. In earlier days, however, workers often were expected to operate in areas in which air filled with asbestos dust was unfiltered; in most cases, the risks of asbestos exposure were unknown. Spouses were also exposed to asbestos if job sites failed to provide ways for employees to wash off asbestos fibers, as workers carried asbestos dust home with them on their skin or in their hair.
As conditions such as mesothelioma often don't manifest until a very long time after asbestos exposure first occurs, those who had jobs at contaminated plants, as well as those who lived with them, should discuss their history of asbestos contact with their physicians regardless of how far in the past they worked there.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.
Energy Information Agency. “Gerald Gentleman Station, Nebraska.”