The flatiron district of midtown Manhattan saw thick, massive plumes of white steam rising high into the air this past Thursday after a 20-inch, high-pressure steam pipe exploded underground. No one was severely injured by the explosion, but the resulting force from the explosion under the concrete of Fifth Avenue (between 21st and 22nd Streets), was so intense that it blew the road wide open, sending ruble, debris, and chunks of asphalt flying into the surrounding area.
As a precautionary measure, forty-nine nearby buildings were evacuated and 500 people were displaced from 249 residential units. Twenty-eight of the 49 buildings are located in what officials are calling “the hot zone,” or the area that holds an especially high risk for exposure to explosion-related carcinogens.
At a press conference, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed that the steam pipe, which was tested by authorities, did test positive for asbestos. “There was asbestos in the steam line casing,” he said. “That’s obviously a real concern for us.”
Asbestos, of course, is a known cancer-causing carcinogen and is deadly when its inhaled. It causes mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer of which asbestos exposure is the only known cause.
According to a CBS News report, while the pipe itself tested positive for asbestos, the air around the exploded steam pipe did not, and presently remains safe to breathe. Upon further investigation, NYC firefighters confirmed that the pipe had not been replaced since the year it was installed: 1932, an era during which asbestos was in high usage for insulation, fireproofing, and construction.
Lingering Asbestos in Area Remains a Possibility
As declared by Mayor de Blasio, the air immediately surrounding the steam pipe was tested for asbestos, and the results did not raise any major concern:
“The air cleared fairly quickly after the incident so the air in this area now is safe. There is no meaningful presence of asbestos in the air at this point. Our concern is the debris that was thrown off by the rupture. Some of that is still visible on the street and the building facades… There is going to be a thorough assessment to make sure that all the buildings are clean and safe.”
The mayor did, however, advise people who live and work in the surrounding area to take precautionary measures anyway. Known as “secondhand” or “take-home” asbestos exposure, asbestos fibers, which are microscopic – and invisible to the naked eye – can cling to a person’s clothing, exposing not only the wearer of the clothing, but all the people with whom they come into contact, including family members.
It is for this reason that de Blasio is urging anyone who was within the vicinity of the steam pipe blast to bag their clothes. Mayor de Blasio said of secondhand exposure, “If it might have gotten on your clothing, get your clothing off.” The bagged clothing can be turned in to Con Edison, located on 22nd and Broadway, which will provide reimbursement for the cost of the clothing. Claim and reimbursement forms are also available on the company’s website.
Additional Asbestos Concerns in NYC
Secondhand exposure through clothing is one concern, but another is asbestos fibers that may have gotten into nearby building ventilation and/or air-conditioning systems. After the tragic 9/11 attacks and the fall of the twin towers, a toxic cloud of hazardous substances – asbestos, arsenic, and other construction toxins – swirled in the air above lower Manhattan in the wake of the felled buildings. This cloud was breathed in by many first responders, emergency personnel, and citizens.
While last Thursday’s steam-pipe explosion is nowhere near the scale of the colossal 9/11 disaster, the presence of asbestos and exposure to it and other possible carcinogens should indeed remain a concern for anyone who lives and works in the area. Until the thorough inspections of the buildings are completed, which could take days, decontamination stations have been established for “anyone who feels like they were affected by this and possibly contaminated.”
Gov. Cuomo Launches Investigation
The direct cause of the steam-pipe explosion is still unknown at this time, as New York City officials continue to prioritize safeguarding the people who were immediately impacted by the explosion.
Due to the unknown cause, governor Andrew Cuomo has directed the Department of Public Service to “conduct a full investigation [to] determine whether any utility activities contributed to it. In conjunction with that investigation, the Departments of Environmental Conservation and Labor are standing by to assist in asbestos testing, assessment and with the disposal of contaminated material.”
Fifth Avenue will remain closed in this particular pocket of mid-town until trained authorities have finished cleaning up and inspecting the toxic scene. The immediate vicinity, it has been reported, ranges 500 feet east and west of Fifth Avenue on 20th and 21st Streets, and 100 feet north and south on Fifth Avenue.