Asbestos in Drinking Water: The Danger of Old Asbestos Pipes and Natural Disasters

Asbestos pipes impacting drinking water

Asbestos is largely viewed as a concern when airborne fibers are inhaled. Studies have shown most mesothelioma cases and other asbestos-related diseases are largely caused from inhalation of the toxic fibers. However, ingestion is another prominent concern, especially in cases of peritoneal mesothelioma.

Though ingestion may be a rarer cause compared to inhaled airborne fibers, residents in Texas and California have become more concerned with this possibility after experiencing asbestos-contaminated drinking water. Early this year, residents in two small Texas towns faced the disturbing possibility of drinking water containing more asbestos fibers than allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, asbestos is limited to 7 million fibers per liter (MFL). The EPA states citizens who consume water with higher than that amount over extended periods may face an increased risk of developing benign intestinal polyps. Another recent study, however, has shown that asbestos in drinking water could potentially lead to the risk of cancer, including mesothelioma.

Asbestos in Old Pipes Leaching into Water

The problems of old pipes in the nation’s infrastructure is nothing new. In its heyday, asbestos was widely used in cement pipes to create a stronger, longer-lasting product. These asbestos pipes were first laid down as early as the 1930s and were believed to be more durable and resistant to corrosion. They were said to have a lifespan of about 70 years.

By the 1950s, however, regulations were in place for the use of asbestos piping for municipal water. But these new standards didn’t mean any old pipes were removed or updated. As such, many of these old pipes are still in the ground today and have reached or are reaching the end of their lifecycle, leading to more problems for residents. Even as early as the 1980s, some residents saw the harmful risks of asbestos in its water supply.

In 1985, the Town of Woodstock, New York experienced interruptions in their water service. Though the town’s asbestos pipes had been installed in the 1950s, the corrosiveness of the local water helped to break down the supposedly long-lasting, durable pipes in just a few decades. The contamination was so bad that showerheads and faucets were clogged with asbestos fibers. Tests of their water supply even suggested asbestos began leaching into the water around 1976. Residents were cautioned to stop using the water, and new pipes were installed the following year.

Residents in two Texas towns began to face similar problems early this year and late last year. Devine, Texas, citizens received a warning letter in November 2016 after the town saw higher than allowed asbestos levels in their water for a year. Testing done periodically from January through July revealed fluctuating asbestos levels of 14, 17 and 18 MFL, more than double the limits set by the EPA. The mayor of Devine said town officials did not believe it was a serious danger, since they were not told to cut off the water supply like in other cases, and hoped it was a mere testing issue. Though the city maintained the water was still safe to drink, many residents were rightly concerned and started buying bottled water instead while the town worked on securing grants to replace the pipes.

Schools in Arp, Texas, faced similar issues with the city’s old asbestos pipes this past August. The town’s mayor and superintendent for the district said the water was visibly discolored and clearly contaminated. Once testing revealed asbestos at levels of 10, 12 and 13 MFLs in the different areas, the town quickly took action. The schools were given water coolers and bottles of water for cooking and drinking, and construction went underway in October to replace the asbestos pipes.

Natural Disasters Can Lead to Contaminated Water

The nation’s old infrastructure created with toxins like lead and asbestos isn’t the only concern for contaminated drinking water. Sonoma and Marin counties in California were also faced with the possibility of asbestos and toxins entering their water supply after devastating wildfires in October exposed these pollutants in the burn zones. As rain was expected in the forecast, officials worried that the toxins would be washed into local rivers and streams – and eventually the public water supply.

They said Sonoma on its own has 617 streams that wind through the burn zones, which feed into the area’s main source of drinking water, the Russian River. At last report, the counties said the water supply remained safe for the several hundred thousand residents that rely on it, but would be monitored for any of these toxins throughout the season. In the meantime, the EPA had teams on the ground helping with cleanup and analyzing each burn area carefully for pollutants. The county has also been putting out sandbags to help catch any run-off rainwater before it enters any of the water sources and potentially causes contamination.

Toxic ash as well as other debris from natural disasters like this can always be cause for concern for asbestos exposure. Since many old buildings, including schools and homes, were built with asbestos or lead or other materials recognized today as toxic, when natural disasters like fires or hurricanes destroy or damage these buildings, all the pollutants release into the air and surrounding grounds.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, after experiencing severe hurricanes recently, is one of the most recent communities facing contaminated drinking water as a result. Taking into consideration the region’s 18 Superfund sites, areas deemed by the EPA as promoting a public health risk that need to be cleaned, officials were worried about hazardous chemicals from the sites as well as any toxins in old buildings leaching into the water. Understanding the risk of such toxins in the aftermath of these events is crucial to preventing dangers like asbestos in the local drinking water.

How to Stay Safe

The easiest way to help keep your water safe from any contaminants, like asbestos, is to use some type of water filtration. This can be as simple as models that go directly on your faucets or water pitchers that filter out impurities. Some may also invest in more expensive options, like a system for the whole house or under-the-sink models. It’s important to pay attention to what contaminants each filters out when deciding what option might be best for your home, as not all water filters or systems remove the same impurities.

As some residents did in these Texas towns, turning to bottled water may be another option when facing these health risks. Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure water is bottled safely without risk of contamination. Companies selling these products must maintain quality testing and test samples before and after bottling. Consumers can take it a step further by checking their bottles and packaging for information on testing, and even get in touch with manufacturers to learn more about how often their water is tested and the methods used.

Overall, the best way to stay safe from asbestos and other toxins in our drinking water, buildings we frequent, and products is to stay educated on where they can be commonly found and any environmental issues in your local communities. We can all support and protect our loved ones from a mesothelioma or other deadly diagnosis by being better informed and raising awareness. Knowledge is crucial for prevention and until action is taken to ban and remove old uses of asbestos, like our water pipes, we will all continue to be at risk of exposure.