On July 19, 2018, an 86-year old steam pipe exploded in the Flatiron district of New York City. Clouds of vapor filled the air at Fifth Avenue and 21st Street in Manhattan, causing an evacuation of all nearby buildings.
While the explosion was dangerous enough in itself, it emerged that the pipe contained asbestos.
Asbestos Is Still in City Pipes
Officials evacuated nearby buildings and closed off Fifth Avenue from 19th to 22nd Streets to avoid public asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a mineral used in the construction industry and was frequently used before the 1980s to insulate pipes.
Once asbestos becomes disturbed, the tiny fibers become friable and airborne, leaving people in danger of inhaling the toxic substance. Inhaling asbestos can cause diseases such as mesothelioma, for which there is currently no cure.
Careful Asbestos Clean Up
The clean-up mission of the explosion was much more dangerous than initially thought. Joseph J. Esposito, commissioner of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said, “asbestos is a killer, so we have to be very careful with how we clean the buildings and clean the streets.”
To minimize the potential damage that this explosion of asbestos could cause in a densely populated city like New York, officials advised people in the area to bag up the clothes they were wearing and immediately shower to remove as much of the dust as possible.
Protecting City Repair Workers
Those working on the clean-up itself were given face masks and protective clothing, when necessary, to protect themselves from the harmful substance. To contain the asbestos, giant plastic sheets were erected around the crater left by the steam pipe to reduce the risk of more airborne asbestos during the repair work.
Officers closed the area for over a week to deal with the damage, which included filling the crater, disposing of the asbestos, fixing the pipe and washing the exterior of all buildings within a 3-block radius.
Questions Raised About Public Health and Safety
The incident underlined the fact that most of our infrastructure was, at one time, made using asbestos. Philip O’Brien, a spokesman for pipe company Con Edison, said that “most of the 104 miles of transmission pipe that make up our steam distribution system would contain asbestos”, which is a worrying fact.
Before the 1980s, asbestos was used to keep pipes insulated, but when the dangers of the substance arose, safer materials replaced it. Yet, old asbestos remains in a lot of buildings and is usually safer to leave intact than to risk breaking up the fibers during the removal process.
The Department of Environmental Protection collected over 1,800 outdoor air samples to test for asbestos, and so far, there have been no asbestos-related casualties to report. The incident was dealt with quickly, but it’s important to remember that this kind of accident could happen anywhere in the world with the same potential consequences.
What to Do in the Event of Asbestos Exposure
If you find yourself involved in an accident involving asbestos, you must:
- Evacuate the area
- Remove your clothes as soon as possible and place them in a sealed bag
- Shower and wash your hair to remove any asbestos particles
- Wash your clothes and shoes
- Clean any area of the house you may have visited while wearing your clothes
Asbestos particles are small and cling onto fabric and hair, so it’s essential to deal with your clothes as soon as possible to avoid cross-contamination. If you’re worried you may have inhaled asbestos, contact your doctor and make an appointment as soon as you can.