List of Contaminants
400,000 Miles of Drinking Water Pipes
May Have Been Made With The Deadly Substance by Barbara Robson
The prospect is chilling: by best estimates, about 20 million people
have had significant exposure to cancer causing asbestos on the
job. Three hundred thousand Americans are expected to die of asbestos
related cancer in the next twenty to thirty years. Now, the deadly
substance is contaminating drinking water around the continent.
Asbestos is one of the most potent carcinogens known to man. Cancer
now claims at least one life an hour among people who inhaled it
on the job. As many as 200,000 wives and children of asbestos workers
will also grow ill merely from washing asbestos laden clothes or
being exposed at their homes.
The American Congress passed legislation in 1984 to control asbestos
hazards in the building materials of 31,000 schools attended by
some 13 million children. And asbestos is present in millions of
houses, apartments and buildings.
Now, alarming levels of invisible, needle like fibers of asbestos
have been discovered in tap water. Much of it comes from an estimated
400,000 miles of asbestos cement water pipe. Enough to circle the
globe sixteen times. Buried beneath hundreds of North American cities.
Yet scientists and government officials can not agree on how serious
this hazard actually is, or even on what levels are acceptable.
"We believe asbestos breathed is a definite carcinogen",
says Dave Ryan, a press officer for the Environmental Protection
Agency, "but as far as asbestos in water, the jury is still
The people of Woodstock NY know the worry first hand. In late 1985,
so much asbestos was in the tap water that it clogged the town's
pipes. Health officials warned citizens not to drink the water,
to limit showers and to keep asbestos contaminated water out of
Tara Roberts, a thirty one year old business woman and mother,
is the leader of the citizen's group Asbestos Free Woodstock. When
she first heard Woodstock's health warning, she thought of her one
year old daughter, who had had a cold. On her pediatricians advice
she'd covered the crib and put a vaporizer beside it.
"I realized that the vaporizer was probably putting asbestos
into the air she breathed," Robers grimly recalls. "I
was horrified." For over a year, she has hauled gallons of
clean water home, taken dirty clothes to a laundromat that uses
well water and showered at the houses of friends with safe water.
Roberts states the 1980s message from the famous town of Woodstock:
"Any community with asbestos cement pipe either has a problem
or will soon have one."
In the past decade, asbestos contamination in drinking water has
been discovered in communities throughout North America. In 1982,
Department of Health and Human Services survey of 538 US cities
showed sixty five percent of them had some asbestos in their water.
Almost nine percent had levels that health experts say should have
In Connecticut, a state that banned installing new asbestos pipes
seven years ago, 900 miles of asbestos laden pipe is still in the
ground, supplying drinking water for over 600,000 people. The Detroit
News informed 4 million water drinkers that 1100 miles of the pipe
that lay beneath them showed more than 3 million fibers in a quart
of tap water.
Asbestos cement water pipes may be anywhere in North American,
from Winnipeg Canada to Texas, and, depending on its condition may
cause people to swallow from a few hundred to hundreds of millions
of fibers every day.
Dr. Philip Landrigan is the director of Environmental and Occupational
Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "Houses
built between 1950 and 1980, when asbestos cement pipe was in vogue
have a good chance of using water from these pipes, but on one is
certain as developers records are imperfect and good data is incomplete."
Unfortunately all too little is being done. Water utilities typically
deny any risk for fear of liability. Occasionally the utilities
even deny they used asbestos cement pipe. Two decades ago, asbestos
cement pipe producers, including former industry giant Johns-Manville,
attempted to fix the problem. With Food and Drug Administration
approval, they sprayed a vinyl liner inside asbestos pipe and subsequently
sold miles of treated pipe throughout New England. A few years ago,
tetrachloroethylene, a chemical known to produce cancer in test
animals was found to be leaching from the vinyl lining into the
water. By 1980 when Manville finally took its vinyl lined asbestos
pipe off the market, 1000 miles were buried in New England and New
Asbestos cement pipe producers paid for reports that advised water
utilities to treat highly acidic water flowing through their pipes.
Acidic water can cause the cement to disintegrate, which can result
in the release of asbestos fibers.
On almost all fronts denial of the asbestos hazard in tap water
seems to run deep. In ostrich like fashion city officials seem to
be pretending that because they can't see the asbestos fibers in
the water, little need be done. Winnipeg, a prairie city of over
600,00 is a case in point.
Sixteen years ago, Dr. Francis Konopasek, a physics professor at
the University of Manitoba studying asbestos levels in wine and
beer wondered if the deadly mineral might be making its way into
Winnipeg's drinking water. Upon inquiring he was told, incorrectly,
that asbestos pipe was only used to carry sewage, not water. In
1979, a Canadian government report showed that Winnipeg's drinking
water was indeed tainted by asbestos. The city had almost 400 miles
of asbestos cement pipe in the ground for nearly half a century.
Over the next few years Winnipeg tested asbestos levels in its drinking
water. In 1983, the year before sampling was stopped, a quart of
Winnipeg drinking water contained 12 million fibers
In the winter of 1986, facing public outcry, the city finally banned
further installation of asbestos cement water pipe. But it also
brought in Joseph Cotruvo, director of criteria and standards in
the EPA's office who gave a different view of the risk. "A
multi million dollar study found the weight of evidence is slight
that ingested asbestos causes cancer". Not surprisingly, environmentalists
Unfortunately industry and government officials have been able
to hide behind the fact that no adequate studies exist to measure
the debilitating effects of drinking asbestos contaminated water.
Dr. Irving Selikoff, the world's leading expert on asbestos related
disease says that there are sound scientific reasons to suspect
a cancer risk from asbestos in drinking water.
In November of 1985 the EPA proposed a nationwide standard for
asbestos in drinking water. It stated that consumer protection was
needed only when more than 7 million fibers per quart were found,
and only when those fibers were long, which means longer than ten
microns. In other words the EPA was assuring everyone that hundreds
of millions of fibers shorter than ten microns were dandy to swallow!
To get to that dubious position the EPA shunted aside its own 1980
estimate of risk, as well as the advice of its own science advisory
board and the opinion of the National Research Council. Instead
it turned to a single animal study showing that asbestos Feb. in
pellet form to rats was barely carcinogenic.
The author of that study, Ernest McConnell of the National Toxicology
Program has acknowledged his surprise. "We would never regulate
fibers longer than ten microns, based on my asbestos findings".
According to Mount Sinai's Dr. Landrigan, the EPA is misguided
in its attempt to pretend that the short fibers are benign. Furthermore,
the Natural Resources Defense Council, a group of scientists and
lawyers with a strong track record in fighting for clean water supplies,
charges that the EPA is allowing a risk 10,000 times greater than
Also in November 1985, the EPA officially conceded that humidifiers
could add to the hazard posed by asbestos contaminated water.
In drinking water the cancer risk seems to depend on the amount
of asbestos swallowed. When you take a little asbestos and send
it out to other parts of the body no one site is going to have very
much, therefore the risk theoretically should be low. Asbestos has
however, one very dangerous quality, as it accumulates in the body;
the microscopic fibers lodged in tissues can remain like little
time bombs and cause cancer years later. Since asbestos exposure
is cumulative, young people are in particular need of protection.
"Adults have three or four decades to develop cancer after
exposure", says Dr. Landrigan. "The kids have six or seven.
this means that a smaller dose of a carcinogen is as dangerous to
the kids as a larger dose of it is to adults".
Controlling asbestos so that standards are met is critical. In
Woodstock, pipes crumbled so badly that the proposed standard was
exceeded. In one 1985 sample, 300 million fibers of every length
were found per quart.
As thousands of other North Americans become suspicious of what
level of asbestos may be in their drinking water, the big question
is how to take preventive measures. At the very least, water districts
should be required by law to tell consumers what type of pipe transports
their precious commodity and before major problems erupt they should
be required to test their water. If necessary districts should be
required by law to quickly remove the pipe, just as schools have
been required to remove asbestos pipe and insulation/tiles. Failure
to do so dooms millions of people to become test animals in a massive
biological experiment involving a known carcinogen.
: Barbara Robson was a reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press in Canada
when this investigative report was first written and published in
U.S February 1987