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.

Need Help? Request a Call Back

Request a call back from one of our expert Asbestos Consultants who will help you identify what you need

More Asbestos Articles

Construction workers are at a much greater risk of being exposed to the dangers of asbestos

‘Asbestos awareness is crucial for everyone involved in the construction industry’

IF you work in the construction industry chances are you will come into contact with asbestos – perhaps without even realising it. With hundreds of thousands of buildings in the UK still believed to contain this highly dangerous material, even something as simple as drilling a hole could leave you vulnerable to exposure, and at … Read more

Mesothelioma can affect anyone of any age

Raising awareness of mesothelioma – a deadly cancer which kills 2,500 people every year

AS Global Asbestos Awareness Week draws to a close, we felt it was important to shine a light on the work of Mesothlioma UK, a charity which is close to all our hearts. For many years, Acorn Analytical Services has been very proud to support the work of this amazing charity which supports people living … Read more

Asbestos: Dispelling 3 common myths

Asbestos: Dispelling the myths surrounding a hidden killer which threatens us all

What does asbestos mean to you? For the vast majority of people it’s just a building material from the past, something they may know is dangerous, but something they rarely – if ever – think about. But what if we were to tell you that you are surrounded by asbestos, that despite being banned more … Read more

Asbestos isn't a headache with the Acorn Compliance Antidote

Asbestos isn’t a problem with the Acorn Compliance Antidote

AT Acorn Analytical Services we’re probably best known for the work we do supporting businesses with asbestos surveys and asbestos management. But did you also know that we offer a full package of health and safety services through our Acorn Compliance Antidote? The antidote is the perfect way to get all your health and safety … Read more

Asbestos consultancy celebrates the opening of new regional office

Asbestos company celebrates the opening of new regional office in Wolverhampton

EARLIER this month the team at Acorn Analytical Services was delighted to welcome the Deputy Mayor of Wolverhampton, Councillor Dr Michael Hardacre and the Deputy Mayoress, Lynn Plant to the opening of our new asbestos management office in Wolverhampton. It was a very proud day for regional manager, Lewis Scott and his team, and Acorn’s … Read more

Emma Gooding, one of our women in construction

Women in Construction: Highlighting the work of two incredible women at the heart of our team

HIGHLY-SKILLED, talented women in construction are right at the heart of Acorn Analytical Services’ success, taking on key roles within our business and leading the fight against the UK’s asbestos epidemic. In recent years, many more women in construction have chosen to take on roles within the asbestos industry and at Acorn we do everything … Read more

Asbestos Book

Asbestos: The Dark Arts – essential reading for anyone involved in health and safety this World Book Day

AS well as being part of one of the UK’s leading asbestos consultancies, Acorn Analytical Services’ directors Ian Stone and Neil Munro have also written best-selling books on asbestos and health and safety. The books, which include their five-star rated title Asbestos: The Dark Arts, have quickly become essential reading to anyone involved in facilities … Read more

Asbestos bitesize training sessions for you and your business

Asbestos: Free bitesize sessions from the experts at Acorn will help keep your team protected from this hidden killer

IT may have been banned from new buildings more than 20 years ago but asbestos still poses a huge threat to the health and wellbeing of our society. Thousands of buildings – including many schools – still contain asbestos which can go on to cause deadly cancer if it is damaged or disturbed releasing microscopic … Read more

Asbestos analyst Jake is a shining star

Asbestos analyst Jake is a shining example of how apprenticeships can be a huge success for everyone

IT’S National Apprenticeship Week and what better way to celebrate than by shining the spotlight on asbestos analyst, Jake Newell. Jake joined Acorn Analytical Services as an apprentice in 2021 and since then he has completed his training, shown outstanding commitment and dedication to his role and been recognised for his efforts by winning – … Read more

2022 - A big year in the fight against asbestos

2022: A big year for Acorn Analytical Services in the fight against a hidden killer

2022 was a big year for the team of experts at multi award-winning asbestos management consultancy, Acorn Analytical Services. It was a year which saw the business grow and develop, we took on new staff and we helped support businesses, charities and organisations right across the UK by helping to manage their asbestos and raise … Read more