Steam pipe explosion in New York causes concern over asbestos

NEW YORK, NY — Anyone who was near the site of a steam pipe explosion that blew out a large hole in the street and covered blocks beneath a layer of soot has been told by Con Edison to immediately shower and then bag clothing in case of possible asbestos contamination.

A pipe involved in the blast that happened about 6:45 a.m. along Fifth Avenue between West 21st and West 22nd streets was installed in 1932, so asbestos may be present.

Officials are awaiting lab results to determine whether the explosion spewed asbestos into the air, but are operating as if those samples will come back positive, FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

Some 100 members of the fire department and other responders to the scene will need decontamination, Nigro said. Anyone who thinks they were possibly contaminated by the blast can report to decontamination stations at Fifth and 22nd Street or Fifth and 19th Street to be evaluated, Nigro said.

Asbestos is a fiber that was used for decades, mostly in building construction, as insulation or fire retardant. Between 1973 and 1989, several varieties of asbestos-containing materials have been banned, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

When handled or disturbed, asbestos can separate into tiny particles that when inhaled can get stuck in the lungs and irritate lung tissue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has been linked to increased risk in developing certain cancers.

If the results from Thursday’s blast site test positive for asbestos, the area and all buildings will need to be decontaminated, a process that Nigro called “a massive undertaking” that could take days to complete.

Nigro said the city’s health department will determine any possible risk from exposure and the safety of the site.

For hour, steam billowed from a large hole in the ground after the pipe burst. The blast sent a soot-like substance shooting down the block.

That black, mud-like substance completely covered the roadway and several vehicles parked in the area. Firefighters could be seen wiping the film off vehicles’ windows, apparently in an effort to make sure no one was inside.

Those who were near the explosion or live nearby are told to shower and bag their clothing in case of possible asbestos contamination, according to Con Edison, which said this is a precautionary measure.

Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health, echoed officials’ orders and cautioned the public to avoid the area of the blast.

“Don’t allow yourself to be exposed to high concentrations of dust irritants and possible toxins,” he said. “If you’re near, breathe through a handkerchief or cloth and monitor your breathing.”

He also advised anyone who was near the explosion site to monitor whether they develop coughing or shortness of breath.

Over the next few days, those individuals may experience irritation and coughing, according to Hirsch, whose main concern aside from possible asbestos is dirt and particulate matter in the air.

Multiple people were injured by the explosion, including three civilians and a police officer who suffer minor injuries from flying debris. Nigro said all were treated at the scene and released.

Streets in the area have been closed. Subways and buses have been detoured or are bypassing the area entirely.

The pipe that burst feeds several others in the area, and may impact hot water and air conditioners, Con Ed warned. Water mains in the area are being turned off.

An investigation is underway into what caused the explosion. Con Edison said they were not aware of any work happening at the blast site Thursday morning.