Originally written by KAREN SWEENEY
HAMILTON residents could be at risk of drinking in asbestos fibres with their water after a cracked and leaking asbestos pipe was discovered and replaced by Wannon Water in Mt Napier Rd.
A Wannon Water spokeswoman confirmed “the repaired water main was an AC (asbestos-cement) pipe typical of the type of approved pipe used extensively across Australia at the time of construction of the water mains”.
As the weather becomes warmer and drier, the risk of more AC pipes in the area cracking or bursting becomes much higher, increasing the risk of water contamination.
Wannon Water is unable to confirm how much of Hamilton’s drinking water is supplied through AC pipes because “the time and effort required to extract this data is considered extensive in replying to a general question”.
According to Wannon Water, Melbourne Water studies for the current Australian Drinking Water Guidelines 2004 have shown that asbestos does not enter the water supply through AC pipes and that the potential for ingestion of asbestos through drinking water does not pose a health risk.
“It is unlikely, however, the numbers of asbestos fibres present in most drinking water supplies would be a health concern,” the report said.
When The Spectator contacted Melbourne Water, a spokesman told us, “Asbestos ingested in any way is not good”.
An issue of the Australian Government Co-operative Research Centre newsletter dated June 2006 noted that, “Asbestos may be released into the water as pipes age and deteriorate”, and also warned against drinking rainwater collected from asbestos-cement tiles rooftops.
According to Dr Irving Selikoff, the world’s leading expert on asbestos-related disease, there are sound scientific reasons to suspect a cancer risk from asbestos in drinking water.
However, the Wannon Water spokeswoman said there was no need to notify local people regarding the AC pipe, because “AC water mains are not known to pose a health risk to water quality”.
Extensive studies on the effect of asbestos in drinking water have not yet been conducted in Australia.
Small studies conducted by the research centre and Queensland Health both concluded that ingesting asbestos in drinking water posed the same risks as inhalation of asbestos fibres.
Both studies also concluded that further studies were required to determine whether the risk was elevated through ingestion over inhalation.
Far more extensive studies have been conducted in the United States, where use of AC pipes began earlier, and as a result water contamination has been a growing problem since the 1980s.
In Woodstock, New York, in 1985 there was so much asbestos in the town’s drinking water that taps and pipes were blocked.
Residents were warned: “any community with asbestos cement pipe either has a problem or soon will have one”.
A study conducted by the Environment Protection Agency noted that in drinking water, the cancer risk seemed to depend on the amount of asbestos swallowed.
It noted however that asbestos had one dangerous quality in that it accumulated in the body, with the potential to cause cancer in later years.
Dr Philip Landrigan, who was involved in this study, warned that as a result, young children were in particular need of protection.
“Adults have three to four decades to develop cancer after exposure, the kids have six or seven,” he said.
“This means that a smaller dose of a carcinogen is as dangerous to the kids as a larger dose of it is to adults.”
Slater and Gordon lawyer, Margaret Kent, has worked for the firm, made famous in asbestos law following the historic class-action suit against James Hardie, for 10 years.
An asbestos law specialist, Ms Kent was last year responsible for securing a record payout for a mesothelioma case.
Ms Kent warned that any exposure to asbestos needs to be avoided because “no asbestos is good asbestos”, also noting that there was no safe threshold for asbestos exposure.
She said while the biggest danger was when asbestos fibres were airborne, “in water it is certainly less than ideal”.
Ms Kent said even a brief period of exposure could pose a serious risk, though the higher the exposure, the higher the risk. She said some of the firm’s clients had become ill with just a single day’s contact.
According to Wannon Water, after the repairs were made the water mains were flushed before being returned to service, a standard procedure, and water sampling was being undertaken on a weekly basis at multiple points throughout Hamilton.