How safe are our water supplies from asbestos?

Acorn Analytical Services

Recently, we read an 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 per cent of water distribution pipes in America and Canada are asbestos cement and that they can contain up to 20 per cent 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’s been estimated about 20 per cent 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 one-million fibres per litre (MFL).

In its Asbestos in Drinking-Water report, WHO commented the hazards associated with inhaling asbestos have long been recognized.

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

It concluded there was no need to establish a guideline for asbestos in drinking-water.

Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t 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.

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

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 are concerned about the fibres which are bigger than this. Their fear is that as the world’s asbestos cement pipes reach the end of its lifespan, breaking water pipes could release larger fibres into our water supplies.

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.

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

If you’re carrying out any building, demolition or refurbishment work make sure you have an asbestos survey at the very early planning stages of your project.

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