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Glimmer of hope in Canadian government response re. asbestos-cement drinking water pipes?

The Government of Canada’s response to Parliamentary Petition e-4375 on asbestos-cement water pipes was posted on January 29, 2024.

Unfortunately, the Canadian government has no immediate plans to regulate asbestos in drinking water, leaving citizens at risk of stomach, pharynx, liver, colon and other cancers.

We wondered if the response to the final petition “prayer”—asbestos eradication purportedly being possible under the Hazardous Products Act—may open opportunities to eliminate asbestos from Canadians’ drinking water. No such luck. Unfortunately, the subtitle to the Act is, “An Act to prohibit the sale and importation of hazardous products that are intended for use, handling or storage in a work place.” It is baffling how a workplace law will protect us in our homes, schools and communities.

Canada continues to dismiss decades of scientific research that swallowing asbestos fibres is harmful — knowledge that led to US regulation of asbestos in drinking water over 30 years ago. Evidence that drinking this carcinogen is harmful has only strengthened over the years, but asbestos-cement pipes still deliver drinking water to many Canadians.

Meanwhile, the risk of asbestos in drinking water supply pipes is attracting attention in the U.K. and Europe.

Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities response

The Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities response linked to reports of uncertain relevance that do not even contain the word, “asbestos.” The one substantive action taken was to add the question, “What was the total length in kilometres of asbestos cement water pipes as of December 31, 2022?” to a federal national infrastructure survey.

Unfortunately this question is ambiguous, so interpretation may not be consistent and responses could be meaningless, because municipalities across the country maintain three tallies of asbestos-cement pipes:

  1. pipes used for water supply;
  2. pipes used for waste water; and
  3. pipes that have been abandoned in place.

All of these pose different risks to human health and to the environment. Though the sum of them is not informative, lengths of water supply pipes that are used and disused, plus waste water pipes, are on occasion reported as a total. As stated, this federal survey question could well result in uninformative data.

Meanwhile, aging asbestos-cement pipes are failing with increasing rapidity. A lack of planning means that asbestos-cement pipes are commonly being replaced as unplanned emergency response; this is higher risk and much more expensive and inconvenient than planned, systematic work.

Minister of Health response

The Minister of Health claims to be staying up to date with the science on asbestos, while its position is still being justified using a study from 1989. Asbestos in drinking water has been a topic of active international research and received attention from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Why has Canada had no science update and consultation, for 35 years?

Internationally, research has found that asbestos causes stomach, liver, colon, bladder and other cancers, as well as previously established diseases such as fibrosis and cancer of the lung, mesothelioma, and ovarian cancer.

Prevent Cancer Now’s view

Prevent Cancer Now believes that the Canadian government must acknowledge that asbestos is just as unsafe to drink as it is to breathe, move expeditiously to address this carcinogen in tap water, rigorously assess ingestion of asbestos so that regulations are developed to require municipalities to deliver clean drinking water, and ensure that workers, residents and the environment are protected in the process.

Health Canada proposes gathering further, stronger evidence on this matter by carrying out a “cohort study.” Embarking on a study that could extend for decades would greatly delay action, while lack of Canadian “exposure” data would undermine scientific rigour.

Both ethics and science must play into precautionary approaches in the face of limited data. We note:

1. A retrospective cohort study could be the quickest, but could be thwarted by a lack of exposure information.

Canada has no standard laboratory methodology for asbestos in drinking water — so laboratories either make up their own methodology or send samples (at greater expense) to the U.S.

Many municipalities have stopped monitoring asbestos in drinking water following periods of “no detection” in Canadian laboratories; unfortunately, with no standard methodology, laboratories were using inappropriate, unregulated methods, lacking validation and quality control, so these results would not be reliable.

Importantly, water samples leaving treatment plants — the data typically reported by municipalities — have not traversed the asbestos-cement pipes, so are not representative of high asbestos exposures from aging asbestos-cement pipes. Sampling specifically for asbestos is necessary.

If there is sufficiently reliable, ongoing exposure data over decades, it might be a project for CANUE (CANadian Urban Environments) researchers using a well-established existing cohort, such as the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow’s Health (CanPath), which holds data on 330,000+ participants in all ten provinces.

2. Prospective cohort studies are typically the strongest scientific design. However, study of effects of exposure to a known human carcinogen, examining outcomes that take decades to manifest, poses ethical challenges. Pausing action to eliminate AC pipe pending results of such a study, would leave uncounted hundreds of thousands or millions of Canadians in harm’s way, for one or more generations.

Finally, after a century of asbestos use, it lurks in homes, institutions, industries, and yes, drinking water. Australia has an Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency to deal with ubiquitous “legacy” asbestos that could harm health. In his response, Minister Holland stated that since the Hazardous Products Act bans sales or importation of products that contain asbestos, such an agency is unnecessary in Canada.

Role for the Hazardous Products Act?

Health Canada referenced provisions under the Hazardous Products Act (HPA); however, the HPA is, “An Act to prohibit the sale and importation of hazardous products that are intended for use, handling or storage in a work place.” It does not apply to the tap water in homes across the country.

The HPA would not affect asbestos that is not being sold. This includes asbestos in place, waste, tailings and products that are inappropriately being re-used for another purpose.

As for commercial products, however, we wonder whether applying the HPA to drinking water means that municipalities cannot charge for potentially contaminated water. Any drinking water that has passed through aging asbestos-cement pipes may contain asbestos fibres. How is the government planning to enforce the HPA, with regard to municipal drinking water supplied through aging asbestos-cement infrastructure? Do affected citizens living along and downstream of asbestos-cement drinking water supply pipes have a right to withhold the drinking water levy on their tax bill?

In closing,

There is ample evidence of asbestos fibres causing and being visualized not only in lung cancer and mesothelioma; but also in gastrointestinal, liver, colorectal, bladder, ovarian and other cancers.
It is time for Canadians to stop drinking asbestos.
All levels of government — federal, provincial, territorial and municipal — have roles to play.