The Ponca City Power Plant is located just outside of the Oklahoma community of the same name. It was repowered in 1995 when one of its steam units was replaced with a gas turbine. A second gas turbine was added in 2003. The facility has a total generative capacity of 104 megawatts. It is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority.
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 pleural mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose, recent advances in biotechnology allow pathologists to detect the early signs of such cancers when they are still treatable.
Up until the 1980s, it was extremely common for factories, mills, power plants and worksites to use asbestos because it excelled at blocking fire. Even though asbestos' strength as an insulator certainly saved lives, the long-term consequences of its use were tragic, as numerous laborers suffered serious illness due to contact with asbestos. The reason is that particles of asbestos, when inhaled, can infiltrate the lungs and cause life-threatening illnesses including asbestosis and cancer of the lungs. The most serious of the asbestos-linked illnesses is mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer that affects the mesothelium, the tissue that lines the chest cavity; it is almost always a death sentence for those who contract it.
Employees who work with asbestos today are generally protected from contact because of the numerous laws controlling its utilization, inclusion in products and scrapping. Those who worked around asbestos before such laws were passed, on the other hand, usually spent their shifts in spaces where asbestos microfibers were prevalent, and they as a rule were offered little or no training about how to work safely with the substance. Family members were also exposed to asbestos when workplaces failed to provide ways for employees to wash off asbestos fibers, because employees took asbestos particles home with them on their skin or in their hair.
Those who worked at this site at any time in the past, as well as their partners and children, should learn more about these health conditions and inform their healthcare professionals about their history of asbestos contact, because the symptoms of diseases such as mesothelioma can be difficult to distinguish from those of less serious conditions. Workers who may have been exposed negligently should seek legal counsel with a mesothelioma attorney.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.