This is a guest post by Samantha Catalano, a Public Outreach Coordinator for the Mesothelioma & Asbestos Awareness Center. Ms. Catalano coordinates the writing, preparation and distribution of informational materials, including articles related to occupational asbestos exposure, mesothelioma cancer and more. For further information, or to contact Ms. Catalano about informational materials, please email [email protected].
We’re all well aware of the need to live “greener” and reduce our environmental impact. In an effort to do so, we all need to consider decreasing our reliance on fossil fuel and utilizing alternative sources of energy, such as solar or geothermal. There are approximately 150 operating oil refineries in 32 U.S. states, and the North Sea area of the UK is also home to 9 major onshore refineries and over 300 offshore facilities. All of these refineries are harboring a hidden danger in the form of asbestos that is affecting the heath of refinery workers and nearby residents. Exposure to asbestos has been linked to the eventual development of pleural mesothelioma, a fatal type of cancer.
The last U.S. refinery was built in 1976, about four years before the Environmental Protection Agency first instituted asbestos regulations. Until then, asbestos was a popular construction material because it was an extremely efficient insulator. Because of this, oil refinery piping often contained asbestos insulation. However, asbestos may be found in other materials within oil refineries, including roofing and floor tiles and drywall.
The UK refineries, including a BP-owned facility in Dorset, which is the largest in Europe, also harbor asbestos-containing materials. In fact, these UK refineries often ship crude oil products to the US on ships which may also be laden with asbestos insulation, presenting an even greater concern. The elaborate pipeline distribution method that has been implemented in the UK may also be a concern, since these extensive pipes must be insulated with some form of heat-retardant material.
Because the refining process involves high heat and combustible liquids, the likelihood of fire and explosion is high. Along with the obvious environmental and safety consequences of a fire or explosion, there is also the concern of asbestos fibers becoming airborne, putting oil refinery workers at risk of inhalation. If inhaled, the small fibers can cling to the pleural lining of the lungs for decades before an individual may experience common mesothelioma symptoms, such as the presence of fluid inside the lung cavity.
Oil refinery workers are at a heightened risk of developing this fatal type of cancer, but so are the residents who live nearby oil refineries. Consider the explosions at two separate Texas refineries in 2005 and 2007, as well as refinery explosions in the UK in those same years: not only were the oil refinery workers at risk of inhalation, but nearby residents faced the potential of inhaling asbestos fibers that traveled via wind current from the refinery to their homes. What is most disturbing for parents is that the latent period associated with mesothelioma cancer is between 20 and 50 years, so a child who inhales asbestos may never know until they receive a mesothelioma diagnosis in their thirties or forties. There are various mesothelioma treatment options, but there is no cure.
It is imperative that we understand all of the implications of fossil fuel use, including the dangers of asbestos present within oil refineries. By utilizing alternative sources of energy, we may one day be able to close our world’s oil refineries and greatly reduce the number of hardworking individuals who are exposed to asbestos.
Photo credit: NARA/EPA via pingnews