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'Canadians should be very concerned about their drinking water': W5 investigates asbestos cement pipes

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Did you know there are asbestos cement pipes underground across Canada? I didn’t until I started researching this story. I actually had no idea what asbestos cement pipes were. All I knew was that asbestos fibres can be deadly, especially if inhaled.

So it was to my surprise when I learned that these pipes, installed decades ago and all nearing end-of-life, were still not only in use but were also delivering tap water to Canadians. And as these pipes deteriorate and fail — they leach asbestos into the water.

This came as a complete shock for Michael Abercrombie — a plumber who used to work with asbestos cement pipes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And at the time he used these pipes only for sewers and storm drains around Collingwood, Ont. — never for drinking water.

  • Read further for interactive map and chart of 85 Canadian communities that use asbestos cement pipes

"That seems unbelievable to me," he said after I told him they were and still are used to deliver tap water.

"The potential for it to come off that pipe… and then drink it," he said. "Why would you take that chance?"

You have to understand, Abercrombie recently had one of his lungs removed after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. All those years of working with asbestos, he believes, took a treacherous toll. He’s well aware of the dangers of inhaling asbestos.

Michael Abercrombie used to work with and install asbestos cement pipes around Collingwood, Ont. for sewer and storm drains decades ago. He's shocked those pipes were ever used to deliver drinking water. (Kirk Neff/W5 photo credit)

The science, however, on ingesting or drinking water with asbestos is still hotly contested. But there is a growing body of research that suggests ingesting these fibres could elevate the risk of stomach and other gastrointestinal-related cancers.

Agostino Di Ciaula, a medical doctor and researcher in the department of Biomedical Sciences and Human Oncology at Bari Poly Clinic in Italy, has published papers that suggest possible links between drinking water containing asbestos and gastro-intestinal cancers.

But he believes until there’s more data, as a precautionary measure, human exposure to asbestos in drinking water should be eliminated.

"Asbestos fibres should be absent in drinking water," he said. "If a pipe is responsible for the delivery of asbestos fibres in water, the pipe should be replaced as soon as possible. A small concentration may represent a chronic exposure to a well-known toxic agent."

ROUGHLY 90% OF RESPONDENTS HAVE ASBESTOS PIPES

W5 spent several months trying to get to the bottom of two things: Where are these pipes, and is there asbestos in Canada’s water?

To answer the first question, W5 reached out and asked over 100 towns, districts and municipalities what types of pipes were in use, and whether there were maps of these networks.

Roughly 90 per cent of the places that responded still used asbestos cement pipes.

Thousands of kilometres are still underground.

We put all that information into an interactive map and chart so you can see if these pipes are in your community. (There are likely many more communities with asbestos cement pipes.)

Unlike the European Union, which wants its member states to create a comprehensive plan to remove these pipes, we found there was little to no federal push for that here.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities said in an email it was up to provinces, municipalities and Indigenous communities how it prioritized spending on water infrastructure projects.

NO LIMITS ON ASBESTOS IN DRINKING WATER

Health Canada maintains there is no consistent evidence drinking or ingesting asbestos is harmful so there is currently no maximum limit that can be in Canadian water.

And with no maximum limit, the agency said, there was no need for testing. That’s likely why very few communities in Canada currently test for asbestos in water.

Julian Branch, a former journalist who is now an activist, has been trying to alert all levels of government about this problem for years, and says there’s a "complete and utter lack of political accountability."

The Regina resident doesn’t understand why there isn’t wide-spread testing and more urgency on the issue.

"Until asbestos is regulated in Canadian water, Canadians should be very concerned about their drinking water," Branch said. "But it’s up to the politicians today to find a solution. We can't just keep pretending it's not there. We have to find a solution to this before it's too late."

Maximum limit or not, it still had us wondering whether there was asbestos in Canada’s drinking water. So we got samples from two cities and sent them for testing.

To find out the results, watch "Something in the Water" in our video player above or on our YouTube channel.

With files from Kathlene Calahan, Riley Nimens, Molly Thomas and Tainted Water Investigative Consortium

Correction

The map has been updated to correct the location of Millstream, a community located approximately 3.5 km north of the District of Ucluelet in B.C.

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