How safe are our water supplies from asbestos?

It's estimated about 20% of the population of England and Wales use water supplies that have passed though asbestos cement pipework.

A few weeks ago, we read an interesting editorial about concerns that water supplies in America and Canada may contain asbestos.

The opinion piece appeared in The Altamont Enterprise in Albany County, New York, and was called We shouldn’t play Russian roulette with our water supply.

It raised concerns about a water main break in the area involving a pipe from the 1940s which was made from asbestos cement.

Health officials said measures are taken to stop asbestos fibres entering the water from asbestos cement pipes but the piece raised concerns that such pipes that were installed across the country in the mid-20th century may now be starting to deteriorate.

Indeed, experts have estimated that around 18% of water distribution pipes in America and Canada are asbestos cement and that they can contain up to 20% asbestos.

What is the situation with water supplies and asbestos in the UK?

During the mid-20th century thousands of kilometres of asbestos cement pipes were also added to the UK’s water network.

It has been estimated that about 20% of the population of England and Wales drink water that has passed though asbestos cement pipework.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the results of a survey of asbestos concentrations in raw and treated waters in the UK suggested most drinking-waters contain asbestos fibres in concentrations varying from not detectable up to 1 million fibres per litre (MFL).

In its Asbestos in Drinking-Water report, WHO commented that the health hazards associated with inhaling asbestos have long been recognized and include asbestosis, bronchial carcinoma, malignant mesothelioma of the pleura and peritoneum, and possibly cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and larynx.

However, it added that the available studies did not support the theory that the ingestion of asbestos in drinking water leads to an increased cancer risk.

As a result, it concluded there was no need to establish a guideline for asbestos in drinking-water.

Unsurprisingly, this has not stopped concerns being raised about asbestos cement pipes being used for water supplies.

In its Asbestos in Water and Asbestos Cement Water Pipes paper, the Safe Drinking Water Foundation quoted doctors and referenced several studies which raised concerns about asbestos in water supplies and its impact on human health.

This included a 2005 study in Norway which looked at the risk of gastrointestinal cancer by more than 700 lighthouse keepers who had been exposed to asbestos fibres in water. It found that the risk of stomach cancer was elevated in the whole cohort.

It also cited a 2016 study in Italy called ‘Possible health risks from asbestos in drinking water’ which found that exposure to asbestos by ingestion could explain why mesothelioma was found in people who had been unexposed to asbestos by inhalation.

During the past year, concerns have also been raised in the UK by specialists working in the pipes industry.

They are worried that we do not know enough about what happens to us when we ingest asbestos through our water supplies.

They have pointed out one of the things we do know is that asbestos fibres do not dissolve in water so once they enter pipes they are carried directly into homes and businesses.

Most asbestos fibres in drinking water are less than a millionth of a metre in length and are considered to pose little to no risk.

However, the pipe specialists have raised concerns about the fibres which are bigger than this. Their fear is that as the world’s asbestos cement pipes reaches the end of its lifespan, breaking water pipes could release larger fibres into our water supplies.

In the UK, there are no guidelines as to when asbestos fibre levels in water are considered a health risk and Britain does not routinely test its water for asbestos.

The last time the issue was investigated by the British government was in 1988. It concluded there was no need to remove asbestos cement pipes, even though it found that degraded pipes leached more fibres into the network.

What should I do if I have concerns about asbestos in water supplies?

If you have concerns about asbestos in the UK’s water supplies write to your local MP and ask them to raise the issue in Parliament. It’s been more than three decades since the issue was last looked at by the Government and in that time our water pipes have deteriorated so it’s high time this was examined again.

We’d also urge any construction firms and other organisations whose work brings them into contact with asbestos cement water pipes to remember that there is no dispute about the damage they can do if they are disturbed and their fibres are released into the air and inhaled.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has produced a report called Hydraulic cutting of asbestos cement and pitch fibre water and sewer pipes to help people stay safe but we would always advise firms to call in asbestos experts.

Remember if you are carrying out any building, demolition or refurbishment work make sure you have an asbestos survey right at the very early planning stages of your project.

Asbestos surveys help you to identify if there is asbestos on site, where it is and what condition it is in. The survey findings should then be shared with everyone working on site to make sure no one damages the asbestos and puts lives at risk.

Acorn is a professional asbestos consultancy helping organisations deal with asbestos compliance using asbestos surveysasbestos air testing, and asbestos removal management. Please call one of the team, or use the online form to obtain your free quotation. If you would like further information or advice on asbestos and asbestos training, contact the team on 0844 818 0895 or Contact Us   

Neil Munro

I work in a dual role at Acorn Analytical Services focused primarily on growing and leading the business from our Northampton office base. My focus is on overseeing all sales, marketing and financial activities from Northampton. I assist clients with high-level asbestos management strategies and training. Together with Ian Stone I host our weekly podcast – Asbestos Knowledge Empire and I'm Co-author of Asbestos The Dark Arts and Fear and Loathing of Health and Safety.

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