After a recent steam pipe explosion in New York City, residents are concerned about potential exposure to asbestos after its presence was confirmed. The steam pipe exploded after extreme underground pressure, pushing up the street and leaving a large crater in its wake. Since the pipe was installed decades ago, it was immediately a concern that the pipe may have contained asbestos. A similar explosion happened last year in Baltimore.
Steam pipes have been used for years as a wide-spread heating system. After steam is produced, it is transported through pipes to various buildings – in this case, the steam traveled through over 100 miles of piping reaching a network of buildings throughout NYC. For construction and building materials like steam pipes that hold materials at extreme temperatures, it’s important to have fire-proof insulation. Asbestos was used frequently by manufacturers as pipe insulation until the 1970’s, when the material was confirmed to present an array of hazards, including cancer.
As they are underground, asbestos-ridden pipes don’t present a hazard to the population walking above. However, any type of disturbance, such as the steam pipe explosion, can cause asbestos fibers to become airborne, which is when the biggest concern arises. Odorless and invisible to the naked eye, it’s near impossible to recognize the fibers.
The city immediately evacuated dozens of surrounding buildings and started to plan a decontamination process, while testing and confirming the presence of asbestos. Those who were in the area were told to remove and bag their clothing, shower, and turn their clothing in to local help centers established by Con Edison, owner of the steam pipe network. Businesses and streets were shut down, and people were evacuated from their homes without warning. Now a long, crucial cleanup process has begun to clean up the streets, and test and clean up any buildings that may have asbestos on them, or within them via their HVAC equipment.
The first question that people asked when Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City, addressed the public was how dangerous the potential exposure to asbestos was. Asbestos presents many risks, including mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer caused by inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers. The more someone is exposed to the material, the more likely they are to develop the disease. Officials are emphasizing that the risk is small, since this circumstance was a short, one-time exposure. However, the risk is there, which those responsible for cleanup are well aware. Joseph Esposito, City Emergency Management Commissioner noted, “Asbestos is a killer.”
Areas within the defined hot zone should be avoided while the cleanup is in process. No one should attempt to handle, remove, or clean up asbestos on their own. Everyone should be aware of potential products and materials that still contain asbestos, understanding that incidents such as the steam pipe explosion are possible, putting many at risk.