Asbestos Related Illnesses in the Bioenergy Industry

When we think of asbestos, we usually picture old, condemned buildings filled with harmful asbestos-based insulation, but this isn’t always the case.

Since 1989, the use of asbestos has been banned in construction work in the UK and many buildings which contain this harmful substance, are being replaced or made safe.

While this is of course, good news, these buildings are not the only source of asbestos and in this article, we’ll be examining the rising cases of mesothelioma compensation claims by bioenergy industry employees.

Asbestos Related Illnesses in the Bioenergy Industry

What is Asbestos?

A naturally occurring substance, asbestos is a fibrous silicate mineral made up of long, thin microscopic fibrous crystals.  When dormant, asbestos can be relatively harmless but, the danger occurs when fibrils are released into the atmosphere and inhaled by humans.

Inhalation of asbestos can lead to serious diseases such as COPD and mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer which is associated with asbestos and which is almost always terminal.

In recent years, concerns have been growing over the number of bio energy employees who have been diagnosed with this devastating disease

What is Bioenergy?

Bioenergy is the term used for the generation of gas and electricity which is renewable and which causes less harm to the planet’s resources than other, more traditional methods which use coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear energy.

Bioenergy methods use organic matter such as food waste to create a flexible energy source. Wet feedstocks like food and other organise material is placed into sealed tanks and allowed to rot. This creates methane gas which can then be collected and burned to generate electricity. Dry materials like wood pellets are also burned in a furnace to boil water, create steam and thereby generate electricity.

Although bioenergy does produce carbon dioxide and release it into the atmosphere, it does so only at the rate at which the organic matter absorbed the carbon dioxide while growing. This makes it greener and more sustainable.

Energy crops are grown in the UK specifically for the use of producing bio-energy. There are currently 1855 bioenergy plants in the UK, employing around 35,000 people.

What’s the Connection Between Bioenergy and Mesothelioma?

At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that old buildings containing asbestos insulation are not the only places that asbestos can be found. In fact, at any given time, the air we breathe can contain asbestos.

However, this is usually at incredibly low levels of between 0.00001 to 0.0001 fibers per millimeter of air and does not pose any danger to human health. Having said that, many doctors will disagree, as many will argue that no level of asbestos is ever safe.

On average, it’s thought that the ‘danger zone’ for asbestos stands at around 1%. An individual who has been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos may be unaware of this as symptoms will often not present themselves until ten or even twenty years after the exposure.

Asbestos occurs naturally in rocks, particularly altered ultramafic rocks and some mafic rocks. Asbestos can also occur naturally in some kinds of soil.

The Connection Between Plant Workers and Illnesses

It has been discovered that, in some instances, dedicated bioenergy crop sites have been created on land where the soil has been contaminated by asbestos, either naturally or through previous commercial endeavors.

Employees who are responsible for working with these crops including planting, nurturing and picking, become vulnerable to high levels of asbestos. When inhaled, this level of asbestos can be harmful to health and has led to mesothelioma.

As well as soil contamination, the process of converting food and organic waste into energy such as creating methane, can produce small amounts of asbestos. Although these may be minimal, continued exposure over time can lead to health problems in workers, including mesothelioma.

Unfortunately, mesothelioma is often caught late and on average, the life expectancy of the patient from the point of diagnosis is only between 4 and 18 months.

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Asbestos Claims in the UK

In 2020, there were 17,023 asbestos compensation claims, with payouts of around £233.9 million. Despite almost forty years passing since the prohibition of asbestos in buildings, some UK solicitors report that claims are increasing rather than dwindling as victims seek financial compensation after being diagnosed with asbestos related diseases.

While some of these claims are made by former employees of old-style power plants, more and more are now emerging from bioenergy facilities.

Further Risk Assessments Need to be Improved by Employers…

In 2022, it’s reasonable to assume that, when you start a new job, the last thing on your mind is the risk of coming into contact with asbestos. Many of the bioenergy employees who are now making claims are justifiably angry about the fact that they were never made aware of any risk during the course of their work.

While this is devastating, it’s not necessarily evidence of sinister dealings by bioenergy companies. In many cases, employers did not inform their employees of risk for the simple reason that they weren’t aware of it themselves.

There’s no doubt that bioenergy is the future as we continue to move away from environment harming processes. However, while we call this progress in some ways, employers will need to examine all of their processes and materials to identify any possible risks to employees, in order to prevent unnecessary illness and death.

About Salman Zafar

Salman Zafar is the CEO of BioEnergy Consult, and an international consultant, advisor and trainer with expertise in waste management, biomass energy, waste-to-energy, environment protection and resource conservation. His geographical areas of focus include Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Salman has successfully accomplished a wide range of projects in the areas of biogas technology, biomass energy, waste-to-energy, recycling and waste management. Salman has participated in numerous national and international conferences all over the world. He is a prolific environmental journalist, and has authored more than 300 articles in reputed journals, magazines and websites. In addition, he is proactively engaged in creating mass awareness on renewable energy, waste management and environmental sustainability through his blogs and portals. Salman can be reached at salman@bioenergyconsult.com or salman@cleantechloops.com.
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