Asbestos in Drinking Water: What It Means and Why It Matters

MAAC StaffJanuary 13, 2017

Residents of the small South Texas town of Devine recently received a disturbing letter informing them that asbestos levels in their drinking water were about twice the government-regulated “safe” level of 7-million fibers per liter. On other occasions, the numbers had been even higher. The city stopped short of telling customers not to drink the water, but advised them to seek a doctor’s advice if they were concerned.

“This is not an emergency,” the letter read. “However, some people who drink water containing asbestos in excess of the MCL [maximum contaminant level] over many years may have an increased risk of benign intestinal polyps.”

As you can imagine, the word “benign” failed to put anyone’s mind at ease. The city says it is protecting residents from future harm, but it is still legitimate to worry about the damage already done. Also, “benign” growths don’t always stay benign.

Unfortunately, asbestos, lead, and many other dangerous contaminants are a problem in public water supplies around the world. As our infrastructure ages and pipes corrode, they release asbestos fibers into the same water that flows straight to your kitchen faucet, your coffee cup, and your child’s water glass.

How concerned should I be?

First, don’t panic. Regulations set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require public water suppliers to test your water regularly – and to inform you when asbestos and other contaminants exceed certain levels. You can find those levels in the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was created in 1974 and amended several times since.

Still, we all know that testing isn’t perfect. EPA regulations didn’t protect the children in Flint, Michigan, from lead poisoning in 2014, and there’s no guarantee they’ll protect you from ingesting asbestos in your tap water.

Asbestos and Cancer

Asbestos has been linked to several kinds of cancer, most significantly mesothelioma, a devastating form of cancer that can form in the linings of the lungs, heart, and abdomen. While the most common way to develop mesothelioma is through the inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers, ingesting fibers – such as through drinking water – can also lead to the disease’s development. In fact, just last year an Italian research study concluded that mesothelioma is possible simply from drinking asbestos-contaminated water.

The mesothelioma link is important because, until recently, the medical community believed the condition could only be caused by inhaling the fibers. You’ve probably seen mesothelioma attorney ads on television or billboards, or maybe you remember hearing about asbestos removal from public schools. Most patients with asbestos-caused mesothelioma have worked with products like roofing, floor tile, drywall, heating systems, and insulation for many years. These materials all contain asbestos, and when broken or crushed, those fibers are released into the air and inhaled.

The Italian study was the one of the first to suggest that mesothelioma could also be caused by asbestos fibers that found their way into the water supply. The likelihood of developing mesothelioma from drinking water is dose-dependent, which means it depends on asbestos levels and how many years you’ve been drinking the water.

Learn more about asbestos and its link to cancer

Protecting Your Family

Investing in a water filter or filtration system is the simplest way to protect your family from asbestos, lead, chlorine, and other contaminants that could lead to harmful diseases like mesothelioma. There are many different kinds of water filters, from fairly inexpensive models that screw onto your faucet or fit into a water pitcher, to more expensive “reverse osmosis” and under-the-sink models. All of these products claim to filter impurities, but they don’t all filter the same substances. Contact the manufacturer if you can’t find specific numbers and data on the packaging or on the company’s web site.

Bottled water is another popular option, but unlike public water, it is not regulated by the EPA. Instead, the FDA sets regulations for water sold commercially in the United States. If contaminants are high, the product must be recalled from the market. Check the label or packaging for testing data, and contact the manufacturer directly to ask how often the water is tested. Don’t be satisfied with vague claims, either. When you call, press them for details on substances tested and precise results of those tests.

A Hard Problem to Solve

In reality, aging infrastructure and corroding pipes is a complex problem to solve. Anti-leaching agents are often used to prevent corrosion and leaching into drinking water, but if a water source changes, the chemistry of that water and its reaction with the agent changes, as well.

When Flint Michigan switched its water source to the Flint River, a lack of phosphate in the river water caused more corrosion of the pipes, leading to lead levels hundreds of times higher than acceptable EPA-determined amounts. Like lead, asbestos leaching is also related to water chemistry and requires the same constant monitoring and strict regulation to protect public health. As a naturally occurring mineral, asbestos deposits can easily contaminate water supplies far away from the municipalities that draw on them. Furthermore, local groundwater can become contaminated when buildings containing asbestos are damaged in hurricanes, tornadoes, or other destructive storms.

Again, your best bet for protecting yourself and your family from high asbestos levels is investing in water filtering. There’s one glaring problem, though. Access to water filtration depends on wealth. For someone living in poverty, buying water filters is not a realistic option. For that reason, it’s important for concerned citizens to stay informed and work together to make clean water accessible to everyone.

It’s also important to continue pushing for the banning of asbestos. The EPA is currently reviewing asbestos and considering the potential for a ban – perhaps they also need to adjust what is considered an “acceptable level” of asbestos in drinking water. While there’s still a lot of asbestos out there, banning it from new products and current uses will help prevent it from getting into the water supply in the future.