Asbestos cement water pipe petition tabled in the House of Commons

The following is a media release from Prevent Cancer Now. For a primer about the issues surrounding asbestos in drinker water in Canada, click here.

Prevent Cancer Now (PCN) is very pleased that Petition e – 4375 calling for action on asbestos cement (AC) drinking water supply pipes was tabled in the House of Commons today by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (view here). MP May emphasized to all Parliamentarians that their constituents may be drinking contaminated water from these pipes, that are reinforced with up to 20% asbestos in the cement.

The petition calls for the Federal government to:
– establish a drinking water standard for asbestos;
– create an inventory of Canada’s AC pipe infrastructure, and a plan for replacement and disposal of AC pipes (including worker protection);
– advance prior informed consent for trans-boundary transfer of this toxic waste; and
– establish an Asbestos Eradication Agency.

The government now has 45 days to respond to this petition. We hope that the responses reflect the seriousness of a known carcinogen in drinking water.

National Research Council studies state that aging AC pipes release asbestos fibres into the water, and that this contamination poses a health concern and a cancer hazard. These studies originated from a $30-million research centre. The Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure Research (CSIR) quietly closed its doors years ago, without warning the public of the potential danger.

Asbestos is not regulated in Canadian water; therefore few municipalities measure asbestos in drinking water. There is no standard regulatory test method, so Canadian labs may produce inaccurate results and under-estimate contamination.

Last year PCN, along with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, filed an Environmental Petition asking questions about AC water pipes. One question centred on how Health Canada continues to maintain that there is no evidence that ingested asbestos is harmful in light of the NRC studies. Health Canada replied that the 10 studies produced are not relevant to health, because they were focussed on infrastructure.

“These NRC studies were carried out by world-class federal government scientists,” said Meg Sears, PCN Chair. “It is specious to suggest that just because they weren’t primarily focussed on health, that studies of asbestos containing pipes for drinking water aren’t relevant.”

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that waterborne and ingested asbestos can be harmful, and urgent action is necessary. Homes with asbestos in the water have higher levels of asbestos in the air too. An exhaustive 2023 review states, “it is important that steps are taken to identify and replace these pipes, in order to ensure that drinking water is free of contaminants and safe for human consumption. … Despite the findings of several studies that have failed to establish a direct correlation between the consumption of asbestos fibers and the development of illnesses, it is not advisable to dismiss the likelihood of asbestos fibers being carcinogenic when present in drinking water.”

The decision not to regulate waterborne asbestos in Canada dates back to 1989 (summarized here). Clearly the process to update the science needs to be expedited.

An inventory of asbestos cement water pipes across Canada is needed. Only when people know where these pipes are, can they make informed decisions. Sears stated, “For decades the debate regarding ingested asbestos in Canada has been on a merry-go-round of ‘no data – no review – no standard – no data’. We have to get to work. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

The United States has regulated asbestos in water since 1992. The American Cancer Society website highlights hazards of swallowing asbestos, and water that flows through asbestos cement pipes.

We ask, “How can swallowing asbestos cause cancer in Americans, and not Canadians?” Existing asbestos cement water pipes were exempt from the 2018 ban on asbestos and products containing asbestos. The fact that a Group 1 known human carcinogen is in Canadian drinking water deserves considerably more scrutiny and urgency.