I was there!
Photo: Ryan F. Mandelbaum

A steam pipe blew up just blocks away from the Gizmodo office this morning, emitting a plume of white smoke on New York City’s Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron District. The Gizmodo writers are all fine, unfortunately for you. But The New York Times reports that city officials believe the pipe, installed in 1932, might be lined with asbestos. Should we worry?

Exposure to any asbestos is not good, but unless you were a first responder to the explosion, you’ll probably be fine.

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“For most people, with one exposure like this, the risk is not zero but it’s quite, quite small,” Arthur Frank, who studies asbestos exposure as a professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University, told Gizmodo.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that’s long been used for its flame resistance. But last century, authorities realized that its teeny fibers can lodge themselves in our lungs, leading to dangerous and fatal illness like mesothelioma.

These diseases, however, are mostly dose-dependent, meaning the greater the dose, the greater the likelihood for disease, explained Frank. Those who inhale a lot of asbestos like those who work with it frequently are far more likely to contract these illnesses than those who are exposed to just a little bit. Today’s scenario also differs greatly from the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, when the towers’ collapse kicked an enormous amount of asbestos dust into the air.

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The New York Times reports that, in today’s case, 100 firefighters will be treated for potential asbestos decontamination, and 28 buildings surrounding the explosion have been evacuated. And the city’s commissioner of emergency management said this morning that if tests show there is asbestos, “the entire area” will be decontaminated, a process that should take at least a few days.

Ultimately, it’s still worth being cautious (don’t go directly into the site of the explosion) since the final results of testing haven’t been released. “It’s never a good idea to have extra exposure to asbestos,” said Frank.

It’s also possible that buildings nearby, but not directly in the area might have taken up small amounts of asbestos-containing dust through air conditioning vents or open windows. Frank said that if you see more dust than usual, it might worth telling someone who can clean it up with a high-efficiency particulate air filter vacuum that can nab smaller dust particles.

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Potentially more disturbing is the fact that this is far from the first such explosion. You might remember a 1989 New York explosion just down the block from this one that sent asbestos into the area—and at least a dozen steam pipe explosions since then, according to The New York Times.

So yes, even a small amount of asbestos could be bad, but no need to lose sleep over this most recent event. Also, statistically, you’re nowhere near a place that should cause you to worry right now, so sorry for wasting your time.

[New York Times]

Update, 4:15PM EDT: New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio confirmed the presence of asbestos, reports Gothamist. He reiterated what we say above, that brief exposure to asbestos isn’t a big deal, but that those in the area at the time of the explosion should wash their clothes and shower. The city will now focus on cleaning the debris from the explosion off of the street and building façades, including 28 buildings of “greatest concern” out of total 49 buildings that the city will examine.

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