On Wednesday, July 14, just before the evening news, a steam pipe on Harrison Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts, burst, sending scalding steam and toxic asbestos pipe wrap into the air.
When the mess settled, the steam was gone, but the asbestos used to coat the steam pipes covered the roadway and dusted all the cars parked along it for a hundred feet in both directions. Fortunately, no one was injured by the steam.
Trigen Boston Energy Corporation, the company owning the pipe, has since sealed the leak. Trigen owns and operates the largest portfolio of district energy systems in the U.S., providing steam heat and cooling to various municipalities, under the aegis of Veolia Energy North America.
District steam heating operates by providing centralized steam generation (coal, oil, gas, geothermal or even nuclear power), which is delivered to individual households and businesses by a network of underground pipes heavily insulated to preserve the heat.
The insulation is often asbestos, discovered about 1853 and viewed from the beginning as a superlative insulator. It naturally found its way into steam heating district energy systems, which were among the first to come onboard in the U.S., pointing the way toward the Industrial Revolution and the electrification of an entire nation.
Thus asbestos was the first compound to be used as insulation in wrapping pipes carrying hot steam – a use not abandoned until the 1970s, when health officials made the definitive connection between asbestos and certain illnesses like asbestosis (a respiratory illness similar to COPD and emphysema), small-cell and non small-cell lung and digestive system cancers, and mesothelioma, a cancer of the protective linings that surround the lungs, heart and abdominal organs.
The pipe rupture is the second to occur in Trigen’s system in several years, the first in 2007 on Otis Avenue, after which the city of Boston asked the company to perform a system-wide review of its steam delivery system. That review showed everything was in working order.
According to a Trigen spokesman, the current pipe failure is not the result of any particular flaw. As to the debris scattered around the area, some of it is asbestos, admits company spokesman Rowan Sanders, but most of it is actually dirt, or asphalt, pushed up and fragmented when the high-pressure steam erupted from the pipe.
As of 8 p.m. Sunday, crews were still working to repair both the pipe and the roadway. Officials who last week said the section of road would remain closed through Saturday are not now offering a date for its reopening.
Crews are also waiting for air quality tests to be returned showing the area has been sufficiently decontaminated. Asbestos fibers, each 100 times smaller than a human hair, are the only known cause of mesothelioma, which kills victims within a year of diagnosis after lying dormant for up to five decades.
Cars parked on the street will also be decontaminated, courtesy Trigen. Not much can be done for the passersby who lingered to view the steam leak in the roadway, according to pictures published in the Boston Herald, and one wonders why firemen and other city personnel were not advised to send the gawkers away if even minute amounts of asbestos were present.
Sources: Boston Globe, WBZ-TV, Rochester University website