Based in San Francisco, Pacific Gas & Electric power generation facilities provide electricity to five million residential and business customers in central California. The company was founded in 1905, and currently employs 20,000 workers in sixteen power plants throughout the state.
Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were used liberally throughout power generation plants, due largely to the combination of heat and electrical resistance and low cost. While saving billions in property damage however, it has cost billions more in terms of human health; though relatively rare, asbestos cancers are painful and expensive to treat.
The health dangers of asbestos were hidden from the public by the same corporations that manufactured and marketed asbestos products for over four decades. During that time, workers carried out their duties in asbestos-filled environments. In addition, family members suffered “secondary exposure” to asbestos when asbestos fibers were brought into the home on the clothing and in the hair of these employees.
In 2007, a Puerto Rican study was published in which the dangers of power plant employment was demonstrated. Doctors in the territory examined the chest x-rays of 1100 such workers. Factoring out the use of tobacco, fully 13% of the x-rays showed signs of asbestos disease.
Anyone who worked at a PG&E Power Plant before the1980s and their families should discuss the possibility of asbestos exposure with their family physician. Symptoms of mesothelioma are not usually apparent until many decades after initial exposure; in addition, the early symptoms often mimic those of many other respiratory diseases. However, thanks to new diagnostic tools, pathologists now have the capability to detect the preliminary “markers” of mesothelioma, so the disease can be treated in its early stages when mesothelioma prognosis is most encouraging.
During much of the last century, it was standard practice for plants, mills, and factories to be constructed with asbestos because of its resistance to heat, flame and electrical current. It is ironic that saving lives was typically one of the primary reasons for utilizing asbestos in worksites because the result was actually to put people at risk of serious illness or death due to contact with asbestos. The reason large numbers of people have suffered from illnesses such as pleural plaques and cancer is that when humans inhale or ingest asbestos strands, the mineral embeds itself into internal organs; once there, the sharp, microscopic spikes damage organs. The most serious of the asbestos-caused illnesses is mesothelioma disease a form of cancer that affects the cells lining the chest cavity; it is a disease that usually kills within two years of diagnosis.
Because researchers have uncovered the link between asbestos exposure and illnesses like pleural plaques, today's workers are protected by state and federal guidelines that prescribe how asbestos is handled. Those who labored around job sites constructed with asbestos before such rules were implemented, on the other hand, generally spent their shifts in sites where asbestos was prevalent, and they typically were offered little or no guidance about how to minimize risks when dealing with the substance. And if employers did not provide decontamination methods, workers took asbestos dust home in their work garments, which exposed family members to this dangerous substance.
Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses frequently take a very long time to manifest, and the signs of these illnesses can be difficult to distinguish from those of less serious conditions, so men and women who worked at such plants during their careers, as well as their family members, are encouraged to speak with their physicians about their history of contact with asbestos.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.
Devine, Kyle (2001). Statement of CPUC President Loretta Lynch Regarding PG&E's Bankruptcy Filing.
PG&E (2009). Pacific Gas and Electric Company Fast Facts.