A steam pipe explosion in New York presents asbestos threat

A steam pipe exploded in New York on 19th July sparking fears of asbestos contamination.


Not long after the explosion in Midtown, Manhattan, the surrounding area was tested for asbestos and its presence was confirmed.


Asbestos is a fibrous material that was widely used in construction during 1960’s before the link between the substance and an aggressive form of cancer was confirmed during the 70s and 80s. It has immense fire proofing abilities and so therefore, is used in materials that are exposed to immense heat such as steam pipes.


Even though asbestos is no longer used, the steam pipes were installed decades ago and so asbestos was an immediate concern. 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 travelled through 100 miles of piping reaching a network of buildings in NYC.


As the pipes are underground, the asbestos does not present a hazard for those walking above. However, any type of disturbance such as a steam pipe explosion will cause the asbestos fibres to become airborne. The fibres are odourless and invisible to the naked eye, so it is almost impossible to recognise them.


As asbestos is so dangerous, the city immediately evacuated dozens of surrounding buildings and started to plan a decontamination process, whilst testing and confirming the presence of asbestos. Those in the area were told to remove and bag their clothing, shower and turn their clothes over to Con Edison (the owner of the steam pipe network). Businesses and streets were shut down and people evacuated from their homes.


Asbestos presents many risks including mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that is caused by inhalation or ingestion of the asbestos fibres. The more someone is exposed to the material, the more likely they are to develop the disease.


Officials are emphasising that the risk to residents and business owners is small since the circumstance was a short, one-time exposure. However, the risk is still there.