Is Asbestos in Water a Widespread Health Threat?

The terrifying story out of Flint, Michigan, involving a toxic water supply that affected the health of an entire community immediately came to many minds when the recent story came out about contaminated public drinking water in a small town 40 miles southwest of San Antonio, Texas.

Late in 2016, community leaders in Devine, a South Texas town, issued warnings to residents that for almost a year there had been too high a level of asbestos in the city’s water supply. More specifically, the maximum amount of asbestos allowed, according to federal regulations, is 7 million fibers per liter (MFL).

Water samples in the Devine water supply had more than twice that in January, April, and July 2016, at 14 MFL, 17 MFL, and 18 MFL, respectively. Devine Mayor Bill Herring said they weren’t instructed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to shut off the water, as has been the experience of the city of Corpus Christi, Texas, where high levels of asbestos were not cited as being the issue. The mayor interpreted the lack of directive from the TCEQ to mean there is no danger to the residents of Devine. Is Mayor Herring being naive on that point?

How Does Asbestos Get in Water Supplies?

A primary way asbestos fibers make their way into drinking supplies is through deteriorating water pipes that contain asbestos. According to the EPA, an equal threat of mesothelioma-causing asbestos being present in drinking water is through erosion of natural asbestos deposits. Other ways asbestos is introduced into water include from:

  • Industrial waste
  • Atmospheric pollution
  • A/C pipes in water-distribution systems

Records show that many of the 1,700 miles of pipe under the city of Corpus Christi are made with asbestos cement pipe, which is rigid and prone to break when clay underneath the city shifts. Cement containing asbestos fiber is also called “transite.” Cement pipe containing asbestos started being used in the U.S. in 1931. Expected to last 70 years, many of these water pipes are being used far longer.

Whatever deterioration occurs in transite, airborne asbestos fibers are not considered to be a threat. The asbestos fibers that accumulate in deteriorating water pipes, however, can become highly alarming, such as was the case in Woodstock, New York, in 1985, when there were so many asbestos fibers that the residential pipes became clogged.

The primary threat associated with transite cement is with the cement workers in factories who work with raw asbestos fibers that become airborne and cause serious health effects decades later, due to lack of needed respiratory safety equipment.

How Dangerous is Asbestos in Water?

The ingestion of asbestos material has been identified as a danger. Research shows that if you live in an area where the water system uses aging transite pipe and you drink the water, you could be at an enhanced risk of developing peritoneal mesothelioma.

The message sent to Devine residents by their community leaders was that there was no emergency, as regards the high levels of asbestos in the drinking water. However, the message spelled out that some people are at an increased risk of developing benign intestinal polyps if they have been exposed to drinking water containing asbestos in excess of the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) over the course of many years.

The word “benign” in that potential diagnosis is not a source of relief for many people in Devine, who have opted to begin drinking bottled water. It appears the city’s sources did not get the memo regarding the potential of developing peritoneal mesothelioma from ingestion of asbestos.

In all fairness, however, all major sources currently seem to agree that the evidence of ingested asbestos being carcinogenic is inconclusive — unlike inhaled asbestos, the carcinogenicity of which is well established.

How Risky are Aging Asbestos Water Pipes?

You may be wondering right about now whether the pipes in your city where you get your drinking water are aging asbestos pipes. Considering one researcher’s claim that upwards of 400,000 miles of asbestos cement pipe have been laid in the U.S. and Canada, it is a real possibility. One good thing is that asbestos is no longer used to make water pipes in the U.S., according to the Environmental Consultancy, an environmental consulting firm.

And it needs to be said that the presence of asbestos in the contaminated Flint, Michigan, water was not the issue. In Flint, the presence of lead caused widespread lead poisoning. Regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) didn’t protect those children. Does the EPA help protect against dangerous levels of asbestos ingestion?

Although there very well may be asbestos pipes where you live, there should be no reason at all to panic. Public water suppliers are required by the EPA to test water regularly and inform the public when contaminants such as asbestos exceed their maximum allowable levels. The basic guidelines for these contaminant levels are in the Safe Drinking Water Act, created in 1974 and amended several times through the years.

Asbestos Legislation

The use of asbestos is heavily regulated in federal and state legislation. The primary laws related to asbestos include the Safe Drinking Water Act; the others are the Clean Air Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Countless workers across a span of industries have been exposed to airborne asbestos and, as a result, have become seriously or fatally ill. The top five industries linked to employee asbestos exposure are factories, shipyards, construction, mining, and railroads.

Conclusion

The high levels of asbestos in the Devine, Texas, drinking water are a cause for concern. There is even a good reason to consider what happened in Flint, Michigan, because the government failed those citizens. EPA reports didn’t stop the water contamination those U.S. citizens were exposed to.

This seems to be the right time for the public to get involved with such things as drinking water safety in order to provide an extra source of oversight over officials who may or may not be knowledgeable enough or trustworthy enough to help us avoid disease caused by asbestos in our drinking water.

Stephanie McHugh

Author

Stephanie McHugh is a former court reporter who worked as the official reporter in a Houston, Texas, courthouse and also took many depositions in which plaintiffs testified regarding their workplace and risks of daily asbestos exposure.