A steam pipe explosion in New York City’s Flatiron district on Thursday has raised fears about the potential for being exposed to asbestos after the material was found in the lining of the pipe.
While the air around the blast sites seems to be safe, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio says there is “real concern” that tainted debris thrown into the air from the explosion could have gotten into people’s buildings or air conditioners, NBC 4 New York reports. Nearly 50 nearby buildings were evacuated after the explosion when the 86-year-old pipe exploded around 6:30 a.m., and 28 of those buildings are in what officials are calling “the hot zone,” the news channel reports.
The mayor says that each of those buildings must be thoroughly assessed for the presence of asbestos, and residents won’t be allowed to return home until the buildings have been deemed safe. People who were in the vicinity at the time of the blast are being advised to bag their clothes and shower. The FDNY is also offering “decontamination sites” for people in two separate locations.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that occurs in rocks and soil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Asbestos has strong, long fibers and is heat-resistant, which is why it’s been used in the past as a building construction material for insulation and as a fire retardant. Although it isn't mined in the U.S. anymore, it’s still present in some older homes, buildings, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. And, apparently, steam pipes.
There are a few health concerns related to long-term asbestos exposure, including asbestosis (a chronic lung disease), pleural disease (a disease that affects that area between the lungs and the chest wall), lung cancer, and mesothelioma (a tumor of the tissue that lines the lungs), the organization says.
But does that mean a one-time exposure is worrying? Probably not.
Because asbestos has been around for a long time, most people have been exposed to it at some point, the CDC says. But being exposed to it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll develop health problems. The CDC specifically says that the length and frequency of exposure matters, along with how much you were exposed to and whether you also have an underlying lung condition.
You can be exposed to it by accidentally swallowing the fibers or getting them on your skin, the CDC says. But, because it can affect the lungs, actually breathing it in may be a bigger concern, Jeffrey Weiland, M.D., a pulmonologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. When it’s handled (or, perhaps, launched into the air by some sort of explosion), asbestos can separate into microscopic particles that remain in the air and are easily inhaled, according to the CDC.
And the more you're exposed to asbestos, the more doctors worry because being exposed for an extended period of time does increase your risk of developing lung disease or cancer, Jacque Fontaine, M.D., a thoracic surgeon and section head of the Mesothelioma Research and Treatment Center at Moffitt Cancer Center, tells SELF. If you happened to be walking by the steam pipe when it exploded, it’s less likely that you should be concerned than if you lived right there, stayed in your home, and breathed in asbestos for weeks, he explains. However, Dr. Fontaine adds, “We don’t know the exact amount of asbestos exposure that is safe versus not safe. We just know that repeated significant exposure puts you at a much higher risk.”
If you find out that your office or home has asbestos, don't panic.
If you find asbestos-containing materials in your house, you don't necessarily need to worry. (You'd have to have a professional come in to test for it, the EPA says, as you can't tell just by looking whether a material contains asbestos.) Asbestos in the home that isn't damaged or disturbed isn't likely to pose health risk, the EPA explains. That's because the biggest issue with asbestos is breathing it in, and asbestos only gets aerosolized if something disrupts it. So if the asbestos isn't disturbed through renovations or construction, your risk of developing health issues is low, Dr. Fontaine says.
"Generally, asbestos-containing material that is in good condition and will not be disturbed (by remodeling, for example) will not release asbestos fibers," the EPA explains. So, definitely call in an asbestos-trained professional if you're planning on doing any of that kind of work (or if it has already been damaged) to take samples and possibly repair or remove it.
When it comes to your workplace, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that if a company knows its workers are being exposed to asbestos, they're required to protect workers by establishing regulated areas, controlling work practices, and creating engineering controls to reduce airborne levels of the material. The company is also required to make sure exposure is reduced and to give workers personal protective equipment, OHSA says. And, if legal limits and exposure times are exceeded (determined by something called Phase Contrast Microscopy, which tests the air), workers need to be medically monitored, OSHA says.
If you happen to be around asbestos at any point, there are a few steps you can take to lower your risk of having health issues.
First, wash your body and your clothes, Dr. Weiland says, because the main concern is that you'll be repeatedly exposed to the fibers if you're carrying them around with you.
Most people who have quick exposure won’t have any symptoms, Dr. Weiland says. In the case of the steam pipe explosion, some people might have a cough, but it’s more likely that would be due to irritants being in the air and not necessarily due to the possible presence of asbestos, Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network and NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. The actual steam and debris that is aerosolized can trigger asthma attacks, respiratory distress, and shortness of breath in people with underlying lung conditions like asthma, she says.
Unfortunately, there’s no way for your doctor to tell if asbestos is in your lungs soon after you were exposed the CDC says—it can take years to see any changes in the lungs. So, if you're concerned about the effects of repeated exposure to asbestos, check in with your doctor. Early symptoms that something might be wrong would be a chronic cough or shortness of breath that gets worse with time, Dr. Weiland says.
If your doctor suspects that you have asbestosis or another lung problem created by asbestos, they'll likely give you a CT scan of your chest or a chest X-ray to see what's going on in your lungs, the Mayo Clinic says. Your doctor may also give you a pulmonary function test, which involves blowing as hard as you can into a machine called a spirometer, to measure how much air your lungs can hold and the airflow in and out of your lungs, the organization says.
But, again, a one-time exposure shouldn’t create any serious health problems for you. “If you happened to walk by it, it shouldn’t cause any issue at all,” Dr. Weiland says.