One of London’s iconic landmarks, Battersea power station, has become tragically associated with the recent death of a 62 year old woman from incurable mesothelioma cancer. Born in Battersea, the mother of two had followed her father, who had been employed at the electricity-generating plant in the 1950s and 60s, and who also fell victim to asbestosis disease.

The Grade II listed building in Wandsworth, was divided into Plant A – built in 1935, and Plant B – built in 1955, Together, both coal burning stations were the third largest generating site in the UK at the time, providing a fifth of London’s electricity requirement until Plant A was closed in 1975 and Plant B in 1983.

Between 20 and 25 years ago there were more than 200 coal, oil or nuclear power stations in operation across England. While the majority were closed by the 1980s, a few continued up to the 1990s and one or two are still in existence today.

While a small number were opened in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, a significant proportion were built from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Their construction coincided with the peak period of asbestos use right across British industry when around 170,000 tons of all types of asbestos fibres were imported into the UK each year to be used in insulation and fireproofing products.

Almost certain to contain asbestos-containing materials

Consequently, power stations, such as those built at Battersea, Didcot Ferrybridge, Eggborough, Drax and Aberthaw were almost certain to contain asbestos-containing materials used to line walls, wires, pipes, boilers, generators and other machinery. The electrical wiring and conduits were insulated with blue “crocidolite” asbestos, selected for being specifically non-reactive and highly resistant to electrical current. Until a crocidolite / amosite ban was introduced in the mid 1980s, a lack of asbestos awareness to the long term health risks was common across different industry sectors.

In many workplaces, little to no safety information or protective clothing /equipment, such as breathing masks were provided. Ironically, in specific circumstances, such as in power stations, workers responsible for building and maintaining the plants did wear protective clothing – but they were entirely manufactured from asbestos fibres.

Asbestos lining needed to be physically removed

Once power stations had been constructed, the testing and maintenance of equipment continued and asbestos lining needed to be physically removed by cutting, sawing, etc. Asbestos fibres were also mixed by hand with water in large buckets to form a paste and then manually applied. Insulators, pipefitters, electricians, welders and other workers often worked in close quarters, and the manual working with asbestos released volumes of fibre dust particles into the atmosphere.

As a result, the exposure to asbestos and the breathing in of fibre dust could also simply occur because of being in the vicinity to where insulation lagging / maintenance was being carried out – even if the material was not being actually handled by a worker. Many mesothelioma victims comment in their written statements that they frequently worked in “air thick with asbestos dust”, which would stick to their skin, hair and clothes.

The subsequent implementation of new regulations demanded removal of asbestos from utilities, including power generation plants. However, many of the original power stations have long been demolished and a small number of stations have recently been built, which are fired by sustainable energy sources, such as biomass.