Is There Asbestos in the Water Supply?

Is There Asbestos in the Water Supply?

For most of the 20th century, asbestos was used to manufacture municipal water, wastewater, and stormwater system transite pipes. Transite was deemed robust enough to produce various lines, and in the mid-1940s, the first asbestos pipes were laid for distributing potable water. Moreover, asbestos cement pipes can still be present in many homes built before the 1980s.

Asbestos encased in products isn't a health risk until wear and tear damages the product's structure. Like all asbestos goods, transite pipes degrade and crack over time, and the danger of asbestos leaching into the water supply grows. While asbestos can enter the water supply from natural sources, aging asbestos cement pipes create another source of exposure. Certain levels of asbestos in the drinking water pose a health risk increased by other toxins polluting the water.

WHO data shows that most U.S. drinking water is contaminated with asbestos but in concentrations low enough not to cause health problems. However, there are situations when asbestos levels in drinking water can likely rise above the maximum safe limit due to transite pipes being disturbed by:

  • severe weather conditions
  • demolition work
  • chemical or physical corrosion

The recommended lifespan of asbestos-containing pipelines is generally about 70 years. After that, pipes gradually degrade, and asbestos fibers used in the transite leak into the water supply. Significant degradation is especially true in abandoned or unmaintained buildings that are not regularly inspected.

Asbestos fibers are small enough to be carried by wind or water for long distances, potentially endangering the resources of communities far from the initial source of pollution. When the microscopic asbestos particles contaminate the soil, it's only a matter of time before they enter the water supply. Common sites of asbestos contamination include:

  • landfills
  • construction sites
  • landslides

In areas damaged after natural disasters, demolition is often used to clear debris, and the emerging dust may contain hazardous levels of asbestos fibers. After asbestos dust settles, soil and water contamination is a given. Furthermore, rainwater collects asbestos from industrial waste, and the carcinogenic fibers become part of the drinking supply.

The Role of Water Treatment Plants in Combating Contamination

Water treatment plants have several methods for detecting and removing asbestos from drinking water and are monitored by the EPA. Although strict monitoring prevents exposure to toxic levels of asbestos in the drinking water supply, some populations are at risk.

The EPA has set a maximum contaminant level of 7 million fibers per liter under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Based on the best available science, this level was deemed acceptable to prevent health issues. In parts of the country where asbestos is naturally abundant, people might be exposed to concentrations over ten times the safety amount, mainly due to:

  • natural erosion of processing mines
  • landfill erosion
  • disintegration of asbestos construction materials

Water treatment facilities usually use reverse osmosis systems, the best option for removing asbestos from water. One micron or smaller reverse osmosis filters can reduce most asbestos from the water through:

  • microfiltration
  • ultrafiltration
  • nanofiltration

Filtration methods across the U.S. do a reasonably good job of filtering the water before asbestos reaches faucet taps. However, more asbestos cement piping must be replaced to prevent contamination in community water supplies.

Individual Steps to Deal with Contaminated Water in the Homes

If you believe your water may be at risk for toxicity, especially after a natural disaster or proximity to contaminated materials, there are solutions to handle the hazard individually and protect your health:

  • Identifying the source of contaminated water is the most important. Searching for broken pipelines that let sewage and stormwater seep into clean water would be best. If the water appears cloudy or smells, assume it's contaminated and immediately stop using it for drinking or cooking.
  • Investing in water filtration is the easiest way to avoid using contaminated water. Many filter types attach to a faucet or store the filtered water in pitchers. Moreover, you can have filters installed for the entire household water system.
  • Storing bottled water is a safety option that allows you to go without potable water for an extended period.

However, the most effective measure is to remain educated on your household's risk of asbestos exposure. It will keep you safe until the problem of asbestos infiltration in water can be handled. Given that the dangers of asbestos contamination in the water supply are ever-present, you should be mindful of the EPA regulations that help reduce concerns and increase preparedness.

Why Should I Test Products in My Home for Asbestos?

It is often impossible to tell whether asbestos is embedded in a material, as the fibers are too small to be observed with the naked eye. Exposure to asbestos is responsible for serious respiratory conditions, so thorough testing is required to ensure your home is asbestos-free.