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W5 asbestos investigation triggers water testing in Alberta municipality

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Medicine Hat, Alta. will begin testing for asbestos due to "community concerns" following a W5 investigation that showed the presence of fibres in the tap water of two Canadian cities.

About 32 per cent of Medicine Hat’s watermain network — roughly 140 kilometres — is made up of asbestos cement pipe and is among the 85 communities W5 revealed to have those pipes still in use underground.

There are thousands of kilometres of decades-old asbestos-cement pipes still delivering tap water across the country. Studies suggest that as these pipes age they’re prone to fail catastrophically, potentially releasing asbestos into the water.

"I think any time an issue is brought up that could affect people's health, there's concern and this is probably not something that was on many people's radar when they saw this [W5] story," Medicine Hat councillor Alison Van Dyke told W5.

Van Dyke said the city will test water from six locations. It’s unclear if there will be periodic testing after that.

"We're kind of making our path as we're walking it… so I'm not sure what the long term decision making around the testing will be right now," said Van Dyke. "I think that when a decision was made it was solely in the best interests of our community, not necessarily to set a standard for other communities."

W5 tested water from Winnipeg and Regina, two cities with hundreds of kilometres of asbestos cement pipe. In both cases, lab tests showed asbestos in the water.

Only a handful of Canadian municipalities currently test for asbestos in drinking water.

CALL FOR ACTIONAL NATIONALLY

Earlier this month, the Green Party of Canada started a petition demanding the federal government create a national inventory of these pipes, similar to what W5 mapped out. The petition is also demanding the government create a limit for asbestos in water.

"The more signatures that you get on a petition, the more likely it is that you will get action from politicians on it," said Naomi Hunter, leader of the Saskatchewan Green Party.

"It's really shameful because the provincial and federal governments have absolutely known about this," she said. "These [pipes] have become more and more dangerous as they age."

HEALTH EXPERTS CONCERNED ABOUT INGESTION

While the long-term impacts of ingesting asbestos fibres are still up for debate, W5 spoke to leading experts who believe there is an elevated risk of gastrointestinal-related cancers.

"Asbestos fibres should be absent in drinking water," Agostino Di Ciaula, a medical doctor and researcher in the department of Biomedical Sciences and Human Oncology at Bari Poly Clinic in Italy. "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."

Drexel University professor and occupational health expert Dr. Arthur Frank said he’s concerned about ingestion that occurs from water delivered by asbestos cement pipes.

"We are constantly getting more and more evidence. Some of it going back 50 years, but there is more and more evidence that it can cause gastrointestinal tract cancers," he told W5.

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. Canada’s Drinking Water Guidelines will be assessed this year.

The only standard that exists comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which says anything under seven million fibres per litre is safe.

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