Benjamin Jelin, Ph.D, CIH, CSP

On Thursday, July 19th, a 20” steam pipe ruptured and exploded on 5th Avenue and 21st Street in Manhattan.  This pipe was likely wrapped with or near a material that contained asbestos fibers as city officials have cautioned.  The Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) has set up decontamination stations in the area. According to the New York Times, about 500 people have been displaced from their apartments out of an abundance of caution.  Currently, city officials are working to determine if these apartments are safe to reoccupy.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring magnesium silicate mineral fibers known for its tensile strength, sound absorbing qualities, electrical non-conductivity and its resistance to fire, heat, and chemical degradation.  It has been used in many industrial and non-industrial building materials since the 1900s including, but not limited to, pipe insulation, floor tile, mastics/adhesives, ceiling tiles, drywall joint compound, electrical panels, built up roofing, Steam pipe rupturespray-in insulation, etc.  Despite the fact that the dangers of asbestos are widely known, there are still materials that contain asbestos that are sold to consumers today. Asbestos fibers are extremely small and, when kicked up into the air, can be inhaled deep into the lungs and can become imbedded in lung tissue.  Inhaling significant amounts of asbestos fibers can lead to an increase of fibrosis of the lungs making it hard to physically breathe and could lead to lung cancer.  These effects are generally considered to be dose-response related (e.g. more dose, more health problems); however, there is one type of cancer that is asbestos specific that appears to be dose independent, which is Mesothelioma.   Asbestos and its disturbance are regulated by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state/local equivalents.

What Actions Should I Take?

As an impacted property owner, the safety of your inhabitants following an event like this is of the utmost importance. One of the most conservative measures would be to hire a professional abatement contractor to conduct a thorough cleaning of your apartment/office before occupying the space.  A third-party consultant is generally used to ensure that asbestos contamination is removed according to industry, local, state and federal standards/guidelines and provide re-occupancy clearance at the conclusion of a professional abatement job. It is important to note that it is illegal to have your environmental consultant and asbestos contractor be connected financially. Additional professional cleaning of upholstery, clothing, ductwork and personal items may be prudent if your occupied space was exposed through air conditioning operation, open windows or occupant activities after the event. Professional abatement contractors will have special equipment, such as commercial High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) vacuums which are rated to filter asbestos fibers, to clean up debris or areas of concern.  Ductwork is also an important component to pay attention to, as asbestos fibers can be entrained into them and disseminated into the occupied space for days following the explosion.

If you were lucky enough to be outside of the affected area, there are steps that can be taken to prevent or control the spread of asbestos in your buildings. An experienced environmental consultant can advise you as to which level of asbestos testing/survey/monitoring you may need for your property. There are many asbestos management options including abatement oversight, air monitoring, development of an operations & maintenance plan (O&M) and/or clearance sampling to ensure asbestos fibers are not present in the air. An environmental consultant can provide expertise throughout the asbestos contamination remediation process including contamination verification, ambient air sampling, and remediation management including planning, oversight and verification for re-occupancy.