Asbestos: Miracle Mineral-Turned Drinking Water Hazard

By Stephen Edmonds. Sourced via Flickr Commons.

Asbestos is a group of naturally-sourced silicate minerals known for its large-scale use around the world. In the early twentieth-century, asbestos was mass produced and prized for its durability, insulation, and cost efficiency. However, by the 1970s the mineral was discovered to have ties to severe health conditions like mesothelioma, a cancer often identified with a short life expectancy.

The danger of this carcinogenic material lies in its microscopic fibres that, when disturbed, are sent into the air. These particles often settle in the surrounding environment with the potential to be inhaled or consumed. Despite everything we know about its harmful impacts, many countries, including Russia and India, continue to mine and produce asbestos products at alarming rates.

Asbestos is now banned in more than 60 countries, but these prohibitions fail to account for previously manufactured asbestos products that are still in existence. Australia once had some of the highest rates of asbestos use per capita in the world, importing 1.5 million tonnes of the mineral into the country from 1930 to 1983. The asbestos industry in Australia was chiefly a byproduct of James Hardie Industries, a construction supply company that produced a variety of manufactured products like siding and cement. These products, along with Australia’s two main asbestos mines in Wittenoom and Woodsreef, account for much of the exposure throughout the country. Although Australia completely banned asbestos and asbestos products in 2003, its legacy leaves a mark to this day.

Water Contamination

Asbestos exposure can occur in any number of ways. Even with restrictions in place, it is possible to come into contact with the toxin through the air we breathe or the water we drink. Half of the water pipelines stretching across Australia contain asbestos-cement. Although these pipes are not considered dangerous in their original state, the deterioration of these materials over time may release higher levels of asbestos fibres into municipal water supplies. Many were produced more than 100 years ago and are still in use to this day, despite a recommended usable lifetime of up to 70 years.

AC pipes are found throughout Australia and New Zealand, as well as the United States, Europe, and Canada. There have been reports of higher levels of asbestos in drinking water as these pipes approach the end of their life cycles, with some releasing so many fibres that the pipes clog. The Water Services Association of Australia estimates that replacing 40,000 kilometers of piping could cost the public upwards of $8 billion. Where once small amounts of asbestos-tainted water consumption was considered acceptable, this degree of carcinogenic contamination may prove to be disastrous to health.

Asbestos fibres have also been known to enter water supplies due to industrial pollution and rain runoff. Similar to plastic, asbestos does not biodegrade or dissolve, so fibres from products in landfills or nearby construction sites can easily enter the environment. It has been speculated that environmental exposure to asbestos yields diseases with longer latency periods compared to occupational exposure. Studies dating back to the 1970s have touched on the topic of asbestos-tainted water and its connection to gastrointestinal cancers, drawing some conclusions about the dangers of ingesting asbestos.

Australia does not have a policy in place to regulate the amount of asbestos in drinking water, and many still refute the dangers of consuming asbestos. However, a study in Duluth, Minnesota, USA reports on a higher incidence of cancers with poor survival rates after discovering high levels of asbestos fibres in the city’s drinking water sources. Because of the nature of asbestos-related diseases, the full impact of contaminated water consumption may not come to fruition for years to come.

The presence of asbestos in drinking water is an issue dating back to the mineral’s rampant commercial use, and one that is still as prominent as ever. Countries like Australia, which have infamous histories of asbestos use but have since taken action against the mineral, continue facing issues with exposure every day. Once public policy allows for the sustainable renovation of infrastructure and proactive management of industrial waste, communities will finally evade the dangers of toxins like asbestos.

Emily Walsh utilizes community outreach to bring attention to the dangers of asbestos exposure and its impact throughout the world. Emily dedicates much of her time to raising awareness about mesothelioma cancer through social media and blogging, working with like-minded organizations to spread the word. Her goal is to one day see a global ban on asbestos.