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NYC undertakes asbestos cleanup after steam pipe explosion

On July 19, a steam pipe on Fifth Avenue between 19th and 22nd Street exploded. While no one was seriously injured in the explosion, the broken steam pipe did release a significant amount of asbestos into the air and covered surrounding buildings.

Shortly after the explosion, the Emergency Management Department closed off several blocks in Manhattan and evacuated the area. They began to power wash the sides of buildings in an attempt to remove the asbestos. 

Is this a danger to residents?

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. However, a quick cleanup of contaminated material helps lower the risk. One doctor who has studied asbestos was quoted in The New York Times as saying the risk was "extremely low" for nearby residents and passerby to develop lung cancer because of this one incident.

However, the doctor did point out that Con Edison employees, who help provide power to Manhattan, may be at increased risk of asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer from routinely being around steam pipes contaminated with asbestos.

Why is asbestos in steam pipes?

In New York City, as with almost all U.S. metropolitan areas, asbestos can be found throughout a number of buildings and infrastructure. Used ubiquitously until the 1970s, asbestos can be found in anything that requires insulation. It was woven into cement, fabric, tile and many other building and consumer products.

While asbestos is a known carcinogen, the cost of removal can be high. The majority of existing infrastructure that contains asbestos remains where it is, undisturbed.

Asbestos woven into hard materials does not pose a significant threat until it becomes friable. This occurs during a dramatic event such as the explosion that occurred on July 19, but it can also occur due to decay over time.

Fortunately, this event is unlikely to pose a significant risk to New York residents. It is, however, a good warning that asbestos exposure can occur to anyone. It is also a reminder that as long as asbestos remains prominent throughout our cities, construction and extraction industry workers are in danger of being exposed.

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