Many New Yorkers think asbestos is no longer a problem today, but a steam pipe explosion this summer in the Flatiron district highlighted just how prevalent it is in buildings across the city and New Yorkers’ risk of exposure. This Mesothelioma Awareness Day, September 26, it is important that we become better informed about the everyday risks posed by this deadly substance.

Asbestos is a toxic substance used for much of the 20th century as a fire-resistant, inexpensive component of construction materials including insulation, tiles, cement, and textiles. It was also used to insulate and fireproof skyscrapers. In 1988, The New York Times reported that the vast majority of buildings in the city that were constructed between 1920 and 1970 were built with asbestos-containing insulation, fireproofing, and soundproofing. Asbestos is still in the walls of some prominent New York buildings like the Pan Am Building and Madison Square Garden.

When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, the asbestos fibers used to fireproof the buildings were part of the massive cloud of dust and debris that coated 410,000 New Yorkers fleeing the city. Because asbestos-related diseases have a long latency period, we still don’t know how many New Yorkers will develop asbestos-related respiratory diseases because of the attacks. Last month, the federal World Trade Center Health Program told the New York Post that 9,795 first responders, downtown workers, residents, and students have been diagnosed with cancer associated with the 9/11 attacks, including lung cancer.

Events like the steam pipe explosion and 9/11 raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos exposure, but they are not the only risk New Yorkers face. Asbestos is primarily toxic when it is airborne and even brief exposure to asbestos in the air can cause related diseases.

New Yorkers who begin renovation projects that open walls, particularly in old buildings, should be conscious of the risk and take steps to protect themselves and others in the vicinity. Because of this risk, the New York Department of Labor’s Asbestos Control Bureau oversees the abatement of asbestos during reconstruction projects. The state provides certification and licensing procedures for contractors and individuals working on asbestos projects and requires notices for large projects and pre-demolition surveys to determine if asbestos is present.

Parents should also consider the risk their children face in school buildings constructed decades ago. This fall, Montclair High School in New Jersey closed when a stairwell collapsed, releasing asbestos into the air. A report by Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), found that nearly one-third of American schools contain asbestos. The city’s United Federation of Teachers says that an estimated 3.5 million tons of asbestos were installed in New York City schools and public buildings. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), requires local public and private schools to inspect their buildings for asbestos-containing building material and prepare management plans to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards. If you are concerned that your child’s school might contain asbestos, request the school’s AHERA management plan, which is required to be made available within five business days of the request. 

On Mesothelioma Awareness Day, New Yorkers should take a moment to consider the risk of asbestos they might be facing in their daily lives. The risk might be more salient during construction projects or major building incidents, but it’s always there.

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