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Asbestos Found in New York City Steam Pipe Explosion Debris

Jul 19, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP Asbestos has been found in the debris left behind from the New York City Con Edison steam pipe explosion that rocked Manhattan yesterday.  Officials for the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) said in a press release that more than half of the debris samples taken from the site of the steam pipe explosion came back positive for the toxic substance Asbestos.   Air samples taken at the same time showed no asbestos in the air around the site.  Officials believe that because the explosion occurred in a wet environment, the dust settled quickly, leaving the air safe to breath.

Despite the clean air findings, the asbestos in the debris is still dangerous.  Therefore, the city will continue to enforce a “frozen zone” between 40th Street and 43rd Street, and between Vanderbilt and Third Avenues.  While people already in the frozen zone will be permitted to stay, no one will be allowed to enter the area while clean up is taking place.  The city said it would shrink the closed off area as the clean up progresses.

The explosion occurred at the height of rush hour yesterday at 41st and Lexington Avenue.  More than 30 people were injured, and one died from a heart attack.  The blast sprayed 200-degree water vapor and debris hundreds of feet into the air, and left a 25-foot crater in the street.  The OEM press release warned that the crater could widen, as the street is in danger of further collapse.

Asbestos is a fibrous, silicate material often used in insulation.  Long-term exposure to asbestos can lead to respiratory ailments like lung cancer and Mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lungs almost always linked to asbestos exposure.  In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most uses of asbestos, but it is still found as insulation in older pipes and buildings.  The steam pipe involved in yesterday’s explosion was 84 years old.

The OEM press release said that people near the blast should be safe because their exposure to the asbestos occurred for a short time.  Nevertheless, the city is still urging anyone who was near the explosion to take precautions, including showering with soap and water, and placing any clothing they wore at the time in a plastic bag for cleaning or disposal.  People inside the frozen zone should keep windows shut, and set their air conditioners to a setting that does not draw in outside air.

Yesterday’s explosion most likely occurred when cold water from recent rains collected around the pipe.  This would have caused the steam inside to condense, eventually building up pressure that caused the pipe to explode.  The steam pipe is part of a network used by Con Edison to heat buildings in Manhattan.  A similar pipe explosion ripped through Gramercy Park in 1989, killing three people.  That explosion also sent debris laden with asbestos into the air.  However, Con Edison concealed that for days, allowing many people to be exposed to asbestos.

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