Bursting City Steam Pipes May Spread Asbestos Fibers

As U.S. infrastructure continues to deteriorate in the wake of rampant privatization, one of the consequences is that the public is at increased risk of asbestos exposure.
Aging, rupturing steam pipes under the streets have caused scares in both New York City and Boston recently. On 12 September 2007, one such rupture deposited a “brown substance” on vehicles and buildings as a plume of steam exploded out of a manhole in downtown Boston. Field tests confirmed that the substance contained asbestos fibers. According to a spokesman for the local private utility, Trigen Energy Corporation, the pipe was in the process of being repaired when it exploded. There were no immediate injuries in the explosion, however three workers and a passerby were taken to nearby hospitals for decontamination. A similar explosion occurred in mid-town Manhattan less than two months earlier. Vehicles, buildings and pedestrians were showered by debris as the geyser of steam shot more than a thousand feet into the air. The pipe, maintained by Con Edison, had been installed in 1924. These pipes, some of which were installed a century ago, were insulated with asbestos. Asbestos was found in the solid debris left by the Manhattan explosion.

Air tests supposedly revealed no “friable” asbestos fibers in the air. Nonetheless, the area was declared an “asbestos containment area,” and those entering the area were required to wear protective clothing and respirators. Local residents are understandably skeptical, since they were given false reassurances regarding asbestos poisoning in the days following the collapse of the World Trade Center. These pipe explosions are not a new phenomenon. As public utilities have been turned over to private corporations over the past quarter century, maintenance has declined as these corporations seek to cut costs in order to maximize profits. As a result, there have been numerous such pipe explosions in major east coast cities over the past several years–twelve in New York City alone. An explosion in Gramercy Park in 1989 killed three people and resulted in a $2-million-dollar fine levied against Con Edison, whose management lied about resulting asbestos contamination. Another explosion in 2000 created a 15-foot hole in the ground at Washington Square and released asbestos fibers into the air.