Asbestos is a group of silicate minerals infamous for its carcinogenic properties. It is typically associated with mid-20th century construction and manufacturing, but its influence holds strong to this day, even in countries that have restricted its use. In the United States, asbestos use has been regulated since the 1970s, but exposure continues to be a pressing issue in older buildings and infrastructure. These structures include water pipelines spanning thousands of miles within a number of continents, including North America, Europe, and Australia. Asbestos-cement pipes were constructed as vital pieces of water distribution systems in the 1930s, before asbestos’ harmful health effects became known. Over time, these pipes experience breakage and decay, releasing heightened levels of asbestos fibers into water supplies.
The impact of drinking asbestos-tainted water has not been very conclusive to date. However, studies that are available and have collected data over several decades do see a tie between drinking contaminated water and higher incidence of cancer, including rare forms like mesothelioma. Because of the nature of asbestos-related diseases, symptoms may not be detected for several years until the cancer is fully developed. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has capped permitted asbestos levels at 7 MFL, but this is often exceeded when pipes are damaged, or water sources are polluted.
In other cases, asbestos contamination stems from environmental factors. Proximity to a construction site handling asbestos or a landfill containing asbestos products can sweep fibers into surrounding areas through the air or toxic runoff. This adds to the asbestos fibers naturally found in bedrock and soil that may be leaching into watersheds. While most water providers continually test and filter water before distribution, microscopic asbestos fibers are not always easy to detect. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA mandates that water providers must notify customers within 30 days after detecting high levels of contamination.