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Steam pipe explosion: Asbestos found at blast site

MANHATTAN — The site of a steam pipe explosion in Manhattan Thursday has tested positive for asbestos, causing concern about the impact on local buildings and people who may have come into contact with the substance, and prompting decontamination efforts which have been described as a "massive undertaking."

Anyone who was near the site the steam pipe explosion that blew out a large hole in the street along Fifth Avenue between West 21st and West 22nd streets and covered blocks beneath a layer of soot have been told by Con Edison to immediately shower and bag their clothing.

Any clothing with debris on it needs to turn the materials over to Con Ed at Broadway and 22nd Street, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference hours after the blast.

"I hate to say it, if someone was wearing expensive clothing at the time … If it has fibers in it, you’re not going to see that clothing again," the mayor said.

Con Ed will compensate people for the cost of clothing that is turned over, de Blasio said.

Decontamination of the Flatiron District site will be "a massive undertaking" that could take days to complete, FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

There are 28 buildings of "greatest concern," but officials are looking at about 50 buildings overall, de Blasio said. Each building — whether a residence or business — must be inspected before anyone can return.

Those who live or work near the blast site likely will not be able to return to the area for at least two days, the mayor said.

Fifth Avenue is shut down around the blast site and is expected to be closed through the weekend while crews decontaminate the area.

The pipe involved in the blast, which happened around 6:45 a.m. Thursday, was installed in 1932, prompting initial concerns of asbestos. Even before the results were in, Nigro said they were operating as if the samples would come back positive for asbestos.

Some 100 members of the fire department and other responders to the scene needed decontamination, Nigro said. Anyone who thinks they were possibly contaminated by the blast can report to decontamination stations at Fifth and 22nd Street or Fifth and 19th Street to be evaluated, Nigro said.

Asbestos is a fiber that was used for decades, mostly in building construction, as insulation or fire retardant. Between 1973 and 1989, several varieties of asbestos-containing materials have been banned, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

If it's handled or disturbed, asbestos can separate into tiny particles that when inhaled can get stuck in the lungs and irritate lung tissue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has been linked to increased risk in developing certain cancers.

Nigro said the city's health department will determine any possible risk from exposure and the safety of the site.

City officials said brief, temporary exposure to asbestos in the air likely will not be a problem. It's repeated exposure -- like through contaminated HVAC systems -- that is cause for concern.

"The air cleared fairly quickly after the incident, so the air in this area is safe," de Blasio said. "There is no meaningful presence of asbestos in the air at this point."

The main focus now is decontaminating air conditioning and heating systems, cleaning the buildings that are covered with soot, and clearing out any absestos-laden debris that was sent flying in the blast.

For hours, steam billowed from a large hole in the ground after the pipe burst. The blast sent a soot-like substance shooting down the block.

That black, mud-like substance completely covered the roadway and several vehicles parked in the area. Firefighters could be seen wiping the film off vehicles' windows, apparently in an effort to make sure no one was inside.

Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health, echoed officials' orders and cautioned the public to avoid the area of the blast.

"Don’t allow yourself to be exposed to high concentrations of dust irritants and possible toxins," he said. "If you’re near, breathe through a handkerchief or cloth and monitor your breathing.”

He also advised anyone who was near the explosion site to monitor whether they develop coughing or shortness of breath.

Over the next few days, those individuals may experience irritation and coughing, according to Hirsch, whose main concern aside from possible asbestos is dirt and particulate matter in the air.

Dr. Mary T. Bassett, health commissioner for the city, said anyone with breathing troubles could consult their usual doctor or go to an emergency room.

Multiple people were injured by the explosion, including three civilians and a police officer who suffer minor injuries from flying debris. Nigro said all were treated at the scene and released.

Streets in the area have been closed.  Subways and buses have been detoured or are bypassing the area entirely.

The pipe that burst feeds several others in the area, and may impact hot water and air conditioners, Con Ed warned. Water mains in the area are being turned off.

An investigation is underway into what caused the explosion.