Asbestos cement water pipes are still widely used to distribute drinking water in communities all over the world. Today there are only a few countries left that install asbestos cement piping. In the United States, the past use of asbestos cement (AC) piping in drinking water distribution systems became very popular. Initially, this form of water piping was first installed in the 1930s and stopped being used by water utility divisions around the 1980s. Ideally, AC piping was used because of its lightweight, lower cost, and resistance to corrosion.
Water Utilities Not Required To Replace Asbestos Cement (AC) Pipes
Eventually, the concern over asbestos in drinking water ended the new installation of AC pipe in drinking water systems. Still, it did not necessarily require the replacement of the existing AC pipe. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, asbestos is limited to 7 million fibers per liter of water. There are several notable cases of AC pipe failure and potential health issues from the detection of high levels of asbestos in the drinking water.
Asbestos is a group of silicate mineral fibers that can be found naturally in the earth. These mineral fibers are comprised of six different types, which are all confirmed to be carcinogenic. Asbestos minerals are also known to cause or enhance serious health risks, including mesothelioma cancer. Mesothelioma cancer is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos mineral fibers. In effect, when asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, the particles can become lodged in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or rare cases pericardium. Over time those particles build up like a plaque and can develop into onset mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma Caused By Asbestos Exposure
Mesothelioma is typically diagnosed into three kinds, which are pericardial, pleural, and peritoneal. Pericardial is the rarest form of mesothelioma. This type of mesothelioma affects the pericardium or lining around the heart. Pleural mesothelioma is the most diagnosed form, which primarily affects the lining around the lungs. Asbestos exposure is more prevalent in human exposure through inhalation, which results from airborne asbestos particles becoming lodged into the lungs, that develop over time. Although rare as well, peritoneal mesothelioma cancer is associated with the lining of the stomach, which is mainly caused by swallowing asbestos particles, which can be exposed through asbestos in water.
Elevated Levels Of Asbestos Fibers In Water Increases Cancer Risk
Unfortunately, it was later discovered through scientific studies that people who consume water with high amounts of asbestos over extended periods may face an increased risk of developing benign intestinal polyps and an increased risk of cancer, especially peritoneal mesothelioma. In turn, there is little risk of airborne exposure through drinking water. Although rare in cases, water droplets can hold asbestos fibers that could make it through a washing machine and then be dispersed into the surrounding atmosphere, once clothing or materials are dry.
Asbestos Cement (AC) Pipes Are Nearing End Of Structural Lifespan
There are thousands of miles of AC pipes still in the ground today, and many of them have reached or are reaching the end of their lifecycle, leading to potential problems for water consumers. Pipe break rates are the leading indicator of the condition of water pipes in a distribution network. Besides, several predominant factors can influence AC pipe breaks.
Pipe diameter, climate, pipe age, clay soil, and maintenance appropriations are primary factors that can lead to an asbestos cement water pipe’s integrity and influence pipe breaks. According to studies, there are more than 600,000 miles of AC pipe installed throughout the United States that contains up to 50% of asbestos mixed with cement and has a typical structural life of 50 years.
Replacing Decaying AC Piping Is Costly
Asbestos cement pipe was initially used because of its lightweight, low coefficient of friction, and resistance to corrosion. In a majority of states, utility companies are not required to remove and replace the existing AC pipe. On the other hand, the increasing age and report of decaying pipes can become a problem when they either have to be removed or replaced.
The downside to replacing the pipe is the high costs and safety concerns. Also, AC pipe removal or rehabilitation is subject to strict EPA rules and regulations. In comparison, exposure to asbestos is most susceptible when the AC pipe is removed, replaced, or laid. For example, work caused by breaking, cutting, drilling, filing, scraping, sanding, and removing, in which actions are done on the surface could lead to airborne asbestos exposure.
Asbestos Cement Piping Is Brittle And Become Potentially Harmful
Alternatively, one main advantage of AC pipes is the fact that they can be produced from local resources at a much lower cost than other forms of water pipe. This scenario would ring true, especially in countries where iron or steel has to be imported. In turn, a significant disadvantage when it comes to utilizing AC pipes is their structural integrity. In effect, AC pipes are brittle and must be handled with care upon transport, installation, rehabilitation, or removal. In fact, utility companies and contractors were recommended not to install AC pipes near large rocks or stones in the ground and near or beneath roadbeds.
Also, the vibration would lead to the AC pipe losing structural integrity over a shorter time versus a steel or iron pipe. Also, it was later discovered that people who consume water with high amounts of asbestos over extended periods might face an increased risk of developing benign intestinal polyps and an increased risk of cancer, including mesothelioma. Seemingly, the most significant disadvantage would be the risk to human health.
Asbestos Cement Pipe (AC) Can Pose A Long- Term Risk For Communities
Inherently, the AC pipe poses a long-term risk to water utilities and the communities they serve. With thousands of miles of AC pipe approaching the end of its useful life, utility entities cannot wait much longer to remove or rehabilitate water pipes. When it comes down to solving the overall problem, it is logistically and economically infeasible to replace all the AC pipe at one time. Instead, it would be more feasible to assess the condition of each pipe segment based on the likelihood and consequence of failure to prioritize replacement piping decisions.
No matter what, to analyze and remove all AC piping would be an enormous feat to accomplish. Even though airborne exposure to asbestos may be more susceptible to enhancing health risks such as lung disease, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, we do not need to discount the dangers of possible exposure to asbestos through AC water piping. On average, there may be only 600 cases of peritoneal mesothelioma a year versus 3,300 pleural cases annually. Still, we all need to heed the risk of elevated levels of asbestos fibers within our community’s drinking water systems.
Remember, exposure to asbestos can reach anyone and does not have only to be inhaled or swallowed in industrial or high-risk settings. Excessive amounts of asbestos fibers can enhance the risk of cancer, especially peritoneal mesothelioma. If you or a loved may be suffering from the harmful effects of asbestos exposure through possible water contamination or exposure through inhalation, please do not hesitate to call an experienced asbestos or mesothelioma attorney.