In my last 2 blogs, I wrote about several concerns customers are facing with their aging LV and MV switchgear. For the most part, these center around safety, reliability and productivity:
- Arc chutes of old circuit breakers contain asbestos, adding to safety concerns for maintenance personnel.
- Replacements parts are very hard (or impossible) to be found and priced as an aftermarket product
- Plants are exposed to forced outages and loss of production due to poor equipment reliability
- Employee safety is often in question due to slow opening time, increasing the arc flash hazard
- Circuit breaker mechanisms have a lot of moving parts, that need lubrication or reconditioning.
- Low- and medium-voltage switchgear and circuit breakers are beyond their expected useful life.
In this blog post, I spoke with the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center about raising awareness around the dangers of asbestos and the importance of eliminating this carcinogen from electrical infrastructure.
Hazardous materials continue to surround our everyday lives, despite what we know about their health consequences. Asbestos, for example, was once thought of as a miracle product for the built environment and was widely used across America. Now we know that this mineral can be a major threat to human health, but we still live with the consequences of those past decisions, particularly when it comes to our built environment.
A history of health risks
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was mined so that it could be used to produce a variety of materials and building products, including insulation, ceiling tiles, wiring insulation, arc chutes of old MV and LV circuit breakers, and other construction materials. Asbestos fibers are exceptionally durable, and even resistant to heat and fire. This resistance to most types of degradation helped ensure the longevity of the products it was made with, which was ideal for the construction industry. As a result, asbestos use was widespread both in terms of geography and the types of materials in buildings constructed before the 1980s.
Just like asbestos cannot be easily degraded by the physical environment, it similarly cannot be broken down by the human body. This makes any asbestos fibers that enter the body very dangerous, as they can cause scarring of the tissue and eventually develop into tumors. Over time, this can lead to illnesses such as a cancer known as mesothelioma, which has an average life expectancy after diagnosis of less than two years. If asbestos-containing materials are disturbed during construction projects or maintenance work, the microscopic asbestos fibers can become airborne. Without proper protective equipment, anyone present can inhale these fibers, and potentially develop an asbestos-related illness in the years to come.
Asbestos in the Modern Day
The greatest risk of developing an illness as a result of asbestos exposure today is through occupational exposure. According to a report from the CDC, this primarily occurs during renovation, maintenance, or demolition of older buildings, since those are more likely to contain asbestos. Additionally, the asbestos-containing materials in older structures may have been put in place prior to the implementation of our current safety regulations, making them even more likely to be dangerous. Some of these products include those commonly encountered by electricians, such as insulation surrounding electrical wires and breaker panels.
The World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in workplaces around the world. Reports have also found that electricians are at a significantly elevated risk for mesothelioma mortality. The cost of treatment for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases can be very expensive, even reaching amounts in the millions of dollars. This isn’t affordable for most Americans, which is why legal assistance becomes necessary to ensure that people are able to access the life-saving treatment they need as well as to hold companies accountable for putting their employees at risk of exposure.
Asbestos is not banned in the United States, although its use is heavily regulated today. Currently, the EPA is evaluating asbestos along with nine other chemicals to determine the extent of its impact on health and the environment. Depending on the findings, this could lead to an update in regulations or even a ban.
What can be done to address asbestos in your old circuit breakers?
Extending the life of LV and MV switchgear with direct replacement breakers solution is a very good option to upgrade your electrical system removing electrical technicians from exposure to asbestos in your old circuit breakers. Customers can save over 40% of the total cost of a project compared to replacing the obsolete switchgear. In addition, the customer will have more control over the total cost of their project and can be done in phases over the years.
Preventative measures like inspections, raising awareness about the risks of asbestos, and updating electrical infrastructure are the best methods to ensure public safety and decrease cancer rates.