An underground steam pipe explosion and the resulting fountain of vapor filled with toxic asbestos fibers caused the evacuation of 28 buildings and the closing of several surrounding streets in New York City Thursday.
Only five minor injuries were reported, but the force of the blast and the steady stream of smoke pouring from the resulting crater covered nearby buildings and sent commuters running for shelter.
The fear of asbestos contamination dominated the early cleanup efforts.
Inhaling or ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers can eventually lead to serious health problems, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
“The big problem that we have to consider is asbestos,” said NYC Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Esposito at a news briefing. “The big part of this will be the cleanup. We are deconning anyone who was in the area.”
Asbestos Confirmed Quickly at Explosion Site
Early testing of debris and air confirmed the presence of asbestos in the surrounding area.
The initial explosion, which occurred in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, came at 6:39 a.m., quickly causing street closings and serious rush-hour traffic problems.
The local power company didn’t stop the flow of steam pouring from the rupture until three hours later.
“We are very concerned about the material that was part of the steam line,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “There was asbestos in the steam-line casings.”
The underground steam pipes in Manhattan, which are part of the largest steam network in the country, date back to 1932.
Asbestos was used extensively in the network’s construction. There is more than 100 miles of steam piping beneath NYC, delivering cooling and heating to more than 2,000 buildings.
A naturally-occurring mineral, asbestos is coveted for its heat resistance and ability to strengthen almost anything with which it is mixed. When left undisturbed in the underground network, it was no serious threat.
The eruption, though, near the Fifth Avenue and 21st Street intersection, sent the toxic fibers airborne, which endangered anyone nearby.
Decontamination Efforts Will Be Extensive
The decontamination efforts began almost immediately.
Officials were urging anyone who was in the area where the blast occurred to shower quickly and dispose of the clothes they were wearing.
Nearby residents have been advised to relocate for a few days while the cleanup continues.
The five minor injuries stemmed from flying debris at the original eruption. No one required hospitalization.
The estimated 100 firefighters who responded to the blast were escorted to a nearby decontamination center.
City officials were saying Thursday the exteriors of nearby buildings would need to be decontaminated, which could take several days.
Buildings will be closed during that time. Also, parts of lower Fifth Avenue could be closed.
“We are operating with an abundance of caution, of course,” said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. “There is a problem with [asbestos] exposure, but how dangerous, the health department will have to evaluate that.”
Most health officials believe that there is only a low risk from a one-time exposure to asbestos. Most serious health problems are the result of continued occupational exposure.
“We have confirmed the presence of asbestos,” di Blasio said. “The concern is the debris on the street and on building facades. There is no meaningful presence in the air.”