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'Understudied and unregulated': Green Party pushes to investigate asbestos in tap water

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has tabled a petition calling on the federal government to take urgent action on Canada’s aging asbestos-cement pipes due to the potential dangers of drinking tap water containing the deadly fibre.

“This is an understudied and unregulated problem,” May said Thursday in the House of Commons. “Believe it or not, many municipalities rely on old cement water pipe delivering water to millions of Canadians, and the pipes contain asbestos fibres.”

Green Party MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands Elizabeth May rises in the House of Commons during Question Period, Thurs., Nov. 9, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A W5 investigation discovered there are thousands of kilometres of asbestos cement pipes underground still delivering water from coast to coast. And as these pipes age they’re prone to fail catastrophically, potentially releasing asbestos into the water.

W5 tested water from Winnipeg and Regina — cities with hundreds of kilometres of these pipes. In both cases, lab tests found asbestos in the water.

At least one Canadian municipality, St. Albert, Alta. started testing its water following W5’s investigation due to “community concerns.”

The petition — initiated by a number of concerned citizens, non-governmental organizations and grassroots groups — is calling on the federal government to assess the health risk of asbestos in drinking water and establish limits while developing a plan to replace the pipes nationally.

The petition is also calling for the government to take complete inventory of asbestos-cement pipes. W5 created its own database in the absence of a federal inventory and found close to 100 communities with asbestos cement pipes still in use, however, the number of actual communities is likely much higher.

While the dangers of inhaling the deadly fibre are well-documented, the science on ingesting or drinking water with asbestos is still 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.

Dr. Agostino Di Ciaula, 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.

“Asbestos fibres should be absent in drinking water,” Di Ciaula told W5. “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.”

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.

May noted in the House of Commons she was hoping to draw attention to all MPs “because our own communities, if you look and you check, you might find constituents of yours are relying on cement pipes for drinking water that are contaminated with asbestos fibres.”

The federal government has 45 days to respond to the petition. Top Stories

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