On July 19 at about 6:40 a.m., a 20-inch steam pipe exploded under a street in New York City’s Flatiron district. Five people suffered minor injuries from the explosion, which tore a hole in the street and caused a geyser of white smoke and debris. That debris contained asbestos, tests indicate.
The asbestos-laden plume could easily travel into buildings via air conditioning systems, so 49 area buildings were evacuated. The evacuations affected approximately 250 residential units housing around 500 people. It was expected that residents could be displaced for several days. The utility that owns and operates the steam pipes, Con Edison, is expected to pay for hotel accommodations through its claims process. The city and state continue to investigate the cause of the explosion.
Naturally, concerns have been raised about asbestos exposure for residents, passersby, Con Edison workers and firefighters who responded to the blast. As you may know, asbestos is a naturally occurring substance with heat-resistant properties that made it seem ideal for insulation and a wide variety of other applications. Unfortunately, this widespread substance creates microscopic dust which can be inhaled. This can cause a number of diseases, including a deadly cancer called mesothelioma.
“We’re going to work from an abundance of caution,” said New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. “Now that we know there’s asbestos present, we’re not going to cut any corners. We’re going to be very thorough.”
Approximately 100 firefighters responded to the explosion, and the Fire Commissioner said that asbestos decontamination units were set up to assist them. In addition, two public decontamination centers were set up in the area.
The major urged people whose clothes had been contaminated by the debris to remove them, put them in a plastic bag, and take an immediate shower. The bagged clothes could be turned in to Con Edison for testing.
This is not the first time a steam pipe has erupted in New York City, which has one of the largest steam systems in the world. In 1989, a burst steam pipe sent up a pillar of steam and debris and killed three people, including two Con Edison workers. In 2007, a pipe blew during the evening commute, sending up a 40-foot geyser of scalding steam over a busy intersection. One person was killed and dozens of others were injured. The number of people affected by asbestos contamination from these explosions is not known.
As the nation deals with an aging infrastructure, events like this may become more common. Cities, states, municipalities and utilities have a duty to keep their systems in reasonably good repair — especially when those systems contain potentially deadly components like asbestos.