“Asbestos” is actually a general term used to describe six separate fibrous materials. All have separable long fibers that are strong and flexible. Asbestos forms the basis of more than 3,000 separate products. For example, brake pads, roofing and cement pipe for water distribution. It has been a popular product since the 1800s because of its strength and resistance to heat. It is very absorbent and has great tensile strength.
Asbestos exists in natural sources, but the main exposure to humans is from the breakdown of manufactured products. Use of asbestos cement for water pipes has been the main contributor of asbestos to water supplies.
Asbestos is largely viewed as a concern when airborne fibers are inhaled. Studies have shown the majority mesothelioma cases and other asbestos-related diseases are largely caused from inhalation of the toxic fibers. However, ingestion is another prominent concern, especially in cases of peritoneal mesothelioma. Though ingestion may be a rarer cause compared to inhaled airborne fibers, residents in Texas and California have become more concerned with this possibility after experiencing asbestos-contaminated drinking water. In 2017, residents in two small Texas towns faced the disturbing possibility of drinking water containing more asbestos fibers than allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The problems of old pipes in the nation’s infrastructure is nothing new as lead in drinking water has grabbed major headlines in the last decade in places like Flint, Michigan. In its heyday, asbestos was widely used in cement pipes to create a stronger, longer-lasting product. These asbestos pipes were first laid down as early as the 1930s and were believed to be more durable and resistant to corrosion. They were said to have a lifespan of about 70 years.
By the 1950s, however, regulations were in place for the use of asbestos piping for municipal water. But these new standards didn’t mean any old pipes were removed or updated. As such, many of these old pipes are still in the ground today and have reached or are reaching the end of their life cycle, leading to more problems for residents. Even as early as the 1980s, some residents saw the harmful risks of asbestos in its water supply.
Health Impact of Asbestos:
Exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of developing any of the following diseases and conditions:
- Lung cancer
- Asbestosis, which results in permanent lung damage (a scarring of the lung tissue)
- Mesothelioma, a relatively rare cancer of the chest and abdominal linings
- Other cancers, including those of the larynx, oropharynx, gastrointestinal tract, and kidney
- Pleural plaques that result in scarring of the lining of the lung
- Small pleural effusions (collections of fluid around the lung)
Because of these health risks, in the late 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos in several products. In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned all new uses of asbestos. However, many products — and particularly buildings that were built before the late 1970s — contain asbestos.
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