For decades, Canada was the largest producer of asbestos in the world. Today, the once-thriving industry has vanished, and the town of Asbestos, Quebec is searching for a new name, in order to distance itself from the trail of misery left behind by what was once known as the “miracle mineral.”
What the vast majority of Canadians aren’t aware of, and what politicians of all stripes don’t want you to find out, is there is a potentially deadly reminder of the heady days of Canadian asbestos production lurking beneath the streets in villages, towns, and cities across the country, and around the world. Pipes made of asbestos cement (AC) that carry water to millions of homes can be deadly, according to numerous studies and reports carried out over the past half century. Legislation was passed in America three decades ago to regulate asbestos in water – but in Canada, the warnings have so far received a disinterested shrug from political leaders.
Health concerns – cancer risks from asbestos in pipes
Asbestos cement became popular as a water pipe material back in the 1940s. The pipes were cheap to produce, and at the time, thought to be resistant to internal and external corrosion. They are made of 80% cement and 20% asbestos.
It is estimated that close to 20% of the water main distribution system in North America is comprised of asbestos cement (AC) pipes. The National Research Council Canada (NRC), Canada’s premier scientific research body, says the pipes already have, or are rapidly reaching the end of their service life, and are deteriorating. Virtually all the NRC reports on the topic say asbestos in the water is a “health concern.” One NRC report goes even further: “Severely deteriorated AC pipes also released asbestos fibre into the drinking water and could pose a hazard of malignant tumors of the gastrointestinal tract and other organs in consumers.” The 2010 report goes on to say “These AC pipes were laid down before the potential environmental, social, and health impacts were recognized and evaluated. In recent years, problems with AC have gradually become significant including increases in the number of pipe breaks and failure.”1
The argument swirls around the inhalation of asbestos versus the ingestion of asbestos. We are well aware of the dangers of breathing asbestos fibres, and the direct connection to cancer, asbestosis, and a host of other life-threatening ailments. However, a debate still lingers about whether the ingestion of asbestos is hazardous. The World Health Organization maintains: “There is no consistent, convincing evidence that ingested asbestos is hazardous to health, and it is concluded that there is no need to establish a guideline for asbestos in drinking water.”
While the industry is prohibited from selling and using the pipes in the future, it appears that there is no federal plan to address the thousands of kilometres of rotting asbestos cement pipes bringing water to millions of homes, businesses and schools in Canada.
However, there is no room for equivocation in the mind of Dr. Arthur Frank, a medical doctor and expert in environmental and occupational health at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who has spent the past half-century studying the issue. “There is no question that the ingestion of asbestos, like breathing it, much of which when cleared from the lungs is then ingested, can lead to the development of a variety of cancers including stomach, small and large intestine, and kidney cancer,” said Frank, who holds a PhD in biomedical sciences and is trained in internal medicine.
Reserve Mining case – evidence of dangerous asbestos fibres
The concern surrounding ingested asbestos came to light in the late 1960s to early 1970s in the United States, with a case involving the Reserve Mining Company. For decades, the company had dumped tons of waste rock into Lake Superior. Residents of nearby Duluth, Minnesota noticed something odd with their water. Test results showed there were strange fibres in the water.
The newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took Reserve to court in an attempt to stop the mining giant from dumping potentially toxic tailings into the lake. Dr. Irving Selikoff testified at the trial that the ingestion of asbestos was every bit as deadly as the inhalation of the fibre. Selikoff, who was the leading American medical expert on asbestos-related diseases between the 1960s and the early 1990s, testified that to do nothing would be like playing “a form of Russian roulette, and we don’t know where the bullet is…. If we’re wrong, the consequences would be disastrous.” The trial was the first time anyone had linked the ingestion of asbestos to cancer. Reserve Mining was ordered to stop dumping its tailings into Lake Superior.
US takes action to ensure a safer water supply
Following the Reserve case, the United States commissioned numerous studies into AC water pipes and ingested asbestos. In 1983, the EPA authored Asbestos in Drinking Water: A Status Report.2 The idea behind the report was to determine whether asbestos required regulation under the Safe Water Drinking Act. The report outlines that the debate revolving around the human risk of the ingestion versus the inhalation of asbestos fibres had been ongoing since at least 1971. “Our response, at the time, was that we did not feel there was sufficient data on which to make judgment on the risk. We recommended however, that where asbestos fibres were found in drinking water, some of the many available means for minimizing asbestos concentrations should be utilized to avoid unnecessary exposure,” wrote Joseph Cotruvo of the EPA.
In 1987, a working group with the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) produced a report entitled Report on Cancer Risks Associated with the Ingestion of Asbestos.3 It concludes: “Sufficient direct evidence is not available for a credible quantitative cancer risk assessment of asbestos ingestion at this time.” However, a few paragraphs later can be found this glaringly contradictory statement: “Nonetheless, this should not be taken to mean that the potential hazard associated with ingested asbestos is an unimportant issue which does not warrant further research. Even if the increased rate of cancer is less than 10% of the background rate and cannot be demonstrated by available research tools, the ingestion of water, food, or drugs laden with asbestos by millions of people over their lifetimes could result in a substantial number of cancers.” The report goes on say that several members of the working group felt it was “prudent public health policy to recommend eliminating possible sources of ingestion exposure to asbestos whenever and to whatever extent possible.” A few sentences later it highlights “eliminating asbestos cement pipe in water supply systems.”
In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. The enforceable regulation for asbestos became effective in 1992, with the maximum contaminant level (MCL) set at seven million fibres-per-litre (MFL) of water. A 1995 EPA document entitled “National Primary Drinking Water Regulations – Asbestos” says the potential long-term health effects of ingesting asbestos are “lung disease, cancer.” The paper goes on to say that if the asbestos in the water supply exceeds the MCL, steps need to be taken to “prevent serious risks to public health.” Asbestos cement water pipes are listed in the document as a main cause of asbestos in water.
Does Canada think cancer stops at the international border?
The 1970s and early ’80s were the halcyon days of research into the impact of asbestos in water. “Chrysotile was the predominant type of asbestos identified in a survey of drinking water supplies conducted at 71 locations across Canada in 1977,” reads a Health Canada paper entitled “Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document – Asbestos.”
“Based on results of this survey, which encompassed the water supplies of about 55% of the Canadian population, it was estimated that 5% of the population receives water with chrysotile concentrations higher than 10 million fibres/L and that 0.6% receives water containing more than 100 million fibres/L.” (You will recall that the current allowable limit in the United States is seven million fibres/L).
While those figures are startling, a 2008 NRC report titled “Safety and waste management of asbestos cement pipes”4 contains a sentence that defies belief:
“In Canada, it is believed that exposure to high concentrations of asbestos in drinking water is unlikely,” reads the report, which followed the aforementioned Health Canada study by 43 years. It goes on to state “In addition, regulatory officials have taken the position that there is no consistent and convincing evidence that ingesting asbestos via drinking water is hazardous to health. Therefore Health Canada has not established a MAC (Maximum Acceptable Concentration) for asbestos in drinking water.”
A couple of observations: 1) Clearly Health Canada and the NRC are not speaking to each other. Perhaps Health Canada can provide an update on those locations with outrageously high concentrations of asbestos in their water from their 1977 research? 2) Can the Canadian minister of health explain how drinking asbestos can cause cancer in Americans, and not Canadians?
More recently, research and questions are coming from every corner of the globe. One of the blunter assessments, Possible health risks from asbestos in drinking water5, comes from Italy, following the discovery of asbestos fibres in the water supply of Tuscany. In part, the abstract reads: “In conclusion, several findings suggest that health risks from asbestos could not exclusively derive from inhalation of fibres…. Health hazards might also be present after ingestion, mainly after daily ingestion of drinking water for long periods.” The 2016 report goes on to caution that prompt action is required. “The precautionary principle should impose all possible efforts in order to revise health policies concerning this topic, and a systematic monitoring of drinking water to quantify the presence of asbestos is certainly needed in all regions. Further epidemiological studies aimed to the identification of exposed communities and to an adequate health risk assessment in their specific geographical regions are urgently needed.”
The NRC has produced a thick stack of reports on asbestos in drinking water. While most focus on the water we drink, some go further. “Although there are fewer health concerns about waterborne asbestos fibres, there are still concerns about the inhalation of airborne asbestos from showers, humidifiers,” reads their 2008 report, Safety and waste management of asbestos cement pipes. “There are also some concerns about the ingestion of fibres from drinking water as well as the clogging of filter systems.”
Political inaction by all parties
In 2016, the Canadian ministers of health, science, and environment and climate change promised that the Liberal government was moving ahead with a “comprehensive” plan to ban asbestos and “asbestos-containing products by 2018.”
However, when the regulations were rolled out in 2018, it was clear that crumbling asbestos cement water pipes, which contain 20% asbestos, got a free pass from the “asbestos-containing products” part of the promise. Buried on page 64 of the Canada Gazette, accompanying the regulations surrounding the ban, is the sad news: “One stakeholder from the cement pipe industry noted that there are no asbestos-free equivalents to the cement pipes they currently sell. They requested additional time to sell and use asbestos-cement pipes already in inventory to allow them to continue their operation while finalizing the development of an asbestos-free cement pipe,” reads the 82-page document. And how did the Liberal government respond to the asbestos cement pipe lobby effort? “The Regulations do not apply to products containing asbestos used before the day that the Regulations come into force,” reads the Gazette.
While the industry is prohibited from selling and using the pipes in the future, it appears that, other than hope and pray people don’t ever learn of them, there is no federal plan to address the thousands of kilometres of rotting asbestos cement pipes bringing water to millions of homes, businesses and schools in Canada.
The federal Liberals and Conservatives both maintain that deteriorating asbestos cement water pipes are a municipal issue. The federal NDP promised to write the Trudeau government regarding concerns it has about asbestos cement pipes, but there is no evidence that the letter was ever sent.
Regina AC pipes
Deteriorating asbestos cement water pipes exist right across Canada, from Kelowna to Halifax. However, no city in Canada appears to face a bigger threat than Regina, where expansive clay soil is wreaking havoc on the 530 kilometres of AC water pipes that make up approximately two-thirds of the city’s water main distribution system. A 2005 NRC report, Failure conditions of asbestos cement water mains in Regina6, says from 1994 to 2003 there were 911 AC pipe breaks in the Saskatchewan capital. “These pipes are experiencing more and more failures in recent years and account for almost all of the water main breaks in the city.”
As mentioned previously, federal politicians download the responsibility of water mains to municipalities. So you would think a city with so many crumbling AC water pipes would be very concerned, and have a plan to deal with them. You’d be incorrect. When the City of Regina was first approached in 2012, it insisted it didn’t even test for asbestos in water because it wasn’t considered to be a health concern when ingested. However, the City recently confirmed that it has been testing water for asbestos since 2015. It says the results show “non-detectable” levels of asbestos in the water. What the city does not say is whether it has advised residents drinking the water, and showering in it, that it reversed its decision not to test, and why. In 2018, the City of Regina released its Water Master Plan – an overarching 25-year blueprint to deal with all water issues. The words asbestos cement water pipes appear nowhere in the document.
In spite of a mountain of scientific research that clearly demonstrates the inherent danger of asbestos leaching from water pipes, it seems politicians in the country that was once the world’s largest producer of the mineral are unwilling, or incapable, of acknowledging this fact, and for some reason are extremely reluctant to take the action needed to ensure there is a safe water supply in Canada. However, the last word is saved for Dr. Frank: “Regulating asbestos in water means that the lives of some Canadians would be saved by not ingesting asbestos in the water they drink and use in showers.”
Julian Branch covered health, environmental issues, and politics for decades as a journalist, and went on to serve as the director of communications for three provincial premiers. His 40-year career has taught him that persistence pays off, and democracy dies in darkness.
How to… Asbestos cement pipes were commonly installed from the 1940s to the 1980s. The easiest way to find out whether your water flows through AC mains is to contact your municipal representative.
This article appears in our Summer 2020 issue.
- Dunling Wang, D. Roy Cullimore, Bacteriological challenges to asbestos cement water distribution pipelines, Journal of Environmental Sciences, August 2010
- Cotruvo, J. A., Asbestos in drinking water: a status report, Environmental Health Perspectives, Nov 1983
- DHHS Committee to Coordinate Environmental and Related Programs, Report on cancer risks associated with the ingestion of asbestos, Environmental Health Perspectives, June 1987
- Wang, D. L.; Hu, Y.; Chowdhury, R., Safety and waste management of asbestos cement pipes, NRC Publications Archive, Sept 2008
- Agostino Di Ciaula, Valerio Gennaro, Possible health risks from asbestos in drinking water, Epidemiologia e Prevenzione, Nov-Dec 2016
- Hu, Y.; Hubble, D. W., Failure conditions of asbestos cement water mains in Regina, NRC Publications Archive, June 2005