In Eagle Point, Oregon, city officials are facing a problem becoming more and more common as America’s aging water supply infrastructure, often containing asbestos-laden cement pipes, faces the need for replacement or renewal.
In a way, the problem is good. It forces cities and municipalities to replace pipes which could be causing, or contributing to, asbestos-related diseases like gastrointestinal cancers, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
On the other hand, the problem now comes at a time when cities across the country are facing budget deficits due to the recession. In Eagle Point, city officials are planning to deal with the replacement issue via federal stimulus money. If and when they get it.
According to city administrator David Hussell, Eagle Point can then afford to pay off the 40-year, $3-million loan used to retrofit a four-million-gallon water tank, and have enough left over to tackle a $450,000 project to replace an aging, six-inch diameter water line made of asbestos-cement piping with a 12-inch line, which is the new standard.
Eagle Point is one of the lucky ones, assuming it qualifies for stimulus funds. A lot of cities and towns are living with their archaic water infrastructure, even though a 1993 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) has documented weak but evident risks to health from ingesting asbestos fibers in drinking water from cement-asbestos piping.
The weakness of the correlation, the study suggests, is partly due to the age of the study, but also to the fact that measuring asbestos fibers in drinking water is technically challenging because said fibers are almost entirely short. However, the WHO admits that the possibility of contamination, by inhaling droplets of water, or from clothing washed in asbestos-contaminated water, clearly exists.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in compliance with the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, has established a safe level of asbestos in water at 7 million fibers per liter of water, and notes in its report that some of the asbestos contamination in drinking water supplies comes not from natural rock formations (as in the case in California and Washington State) but from the use of asbestos cement pipes.
The EPA has also put drinking water regulations in place to protect the public. These involve a mandate that water utilities test on a yearly basis for certain contaminants, including asbestos.
In cases where asbestos levels exceed the safe level, the water provider must notify the public via radio, television, newspapers and other means. Additional actions, such as providing alternative drinking water supplies, may be required. This regulation went into effect in 1992.
In spite of the smallness of the risk, it does happen. In 1985, asbestos contamination from asbestos-cement pipes was discovered in the public water supply of the Town of Woodstock, Ulster County, New York. The pipes dated from the mid-to-late 1950s, and the situation was exacerbated by the corrosiveness of the water.
From 1980 to 1998, the New York State Cancer Registry followed up with studies, and concluded that the rate for gastrointestinal cancers was not statistically significant, but the rate for pancreatic cancers was. Mesothelioma rates were also insignificant, but the reports’ authors acknowledged that any ability to detect trends was limited by the study’s small base of participants and unknown dates of initial exposure.
There are also cases where water utilities – through lack of understanding the regulations (or perhaps bureaucratic mix-ups) – fail to test appropriately, or fail to report testing when it occurs.
For example, in 2008 the Eagle Mountain city (Utah) water supply utility failed to take samples from one of its three major wells. But Eagle Mountain is not alone. Millville, New Jersey, did the same, and a Web search for asbestos in water turns up a number of water utilities who also failed in one aspect or another of testing.
Residents living in older areas of the country who are concerned that their public water supply might contain asbestos from old water pipes are advised to contact their local health and human services department to find out if water quality reports have been filed in a timely manner, and if such reports document asbestos.
Sources: Eagle Mountain City website, Foundation for Water Research, Cumberland Country New Jersey