New York City

How NYC Is Tackling Asbestos in Wake of Steam Pipe Explosion

Con Edison says much of its 104-mile network of steam pipes is coated with asbestos insulation

What to Know

  • An asbestos-lined steam pipe exploded in the Flatiron District, shutting down the bustling area at the height of Thursday's morning rush
  • The air at the site of the blast near Fifth Avenue and 21st Street is safe, but strong asbestos concerns remain; 49 buildings were evacuated
  • A cause of the explosion is under investigation; it comes almost 11 years to the day of a pipe blast near Grand Central that hurt dozens

UPDATE: Asbestos Check at 28 "Hot Zone" Buildings Near Steam Pipe Blast Could Take Days

The Flatiron steam pipe explosion that sent debris and asbestos spewing from the ground has officials taking no chances. 

Con Edison says much of its 104-mile network of steam pipes is coated with asbestos insulation. Asbestos fibers can be thought of as tiny invisible feathers that, when disturbed, can float through the air and cause a very rare form of lung disease. 

Mayor de Blasio has assured the city that tests showed no airborne asbestos but he also said the road to total decontamination may be days long.

"If it might have gotten on your clothing, get your clothing off," de Blasio said.

De Blasio said each one of the 28 buildings that were evacuated in the "hot zone" must be thoroughly assessed for the potential presence of asbestos, and residents won't be allowed to return to their homes -- with the exception of emergency needs -- until those assessments have been completed. The other 21 buildings that were evacuated will be assessed, but de Blasio said the presence of asbestos is less likely there. 

Robert Komitor, an attorney who specializes in asbestos litigation, says it's important to re-test the air several times in the coming days, and for the 49 evacuated buildings to check their ventilation systems. 

"The issue is whether these fibers that are on the street, that are on the buildings, that are on the cars, that are on the people's clothing, that they aren't re-entrained into the air. So you've gotta make sure to remove as much of the fiber as you can," he said. 

Back in 1989, a Gramercy Park steam pipe bust, sending an estimated 200 pounds of asbestos into the air. Decontaminating nearby buildings took a month. And Con Edison pleaded guilty to conspiracy after being charge with misleading the public. 

This time, the asbestos warnings have been loud and clear. 

"The city seems to be taking a very cautious view, which may disrupt things in the short term, but in the long term, I think it's a much safer way of proceeding," said Komitor. 

People who live or work in the area should keep windows closed until clean-up is completed, the city's health department says. Window air conditioners should be set to re-circulate indoor air, and if you see or have debris from the explosion, do not move it -- instead, contact your building manager or landlord right away. 

Con Edison will work to compensate people for items they may have to toss due to exposure risk. Company personnel will be at 19th Street and Broadway, and at 22nd Street and Broadway until 9 p.m. Thursday to accept the clothing. Claim forms for clothing compensation are also available online at 

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