Cement pipes are concrete pipes that contain a mixture of Portland cement – the most common type of cement in general use – and asbestos fibers. Due to their resistance to corrosion, these pipes are most often utilized in waterworks and drainage systems but can also be found in city gas lines. They are not expected to be located inside private residences or well systems. If these pipes remain in good working condition, they should pose no serious health risk to the individual. But when the lines begin to deteriorate, as they have on occasion, small fibers of asbestos can be leached from the channel into the water flowing through it.
In the United States alone, there are almost 400,000 miles of asbestos cement pipes in use. In 1982, a survey of over 500 cities showed that a certain amount of asbestos fibers were found in 65% of those cities’ drinking water. A total of 9% had a concentration level of great concern. Little has been done to remedy this situation since studies do not show a link between the ingestion of asbestos through liquids and mesothelioma, and other cancers and diseases. Mesothelioma is an uncommon form of cancer affecting the pleura that surrounds the lungs, abdomen or heart. The latency of mesothelioma, much like other asbestos-related illnesses, is quite prolonged so the actual effects have yet to truly be determined and should be considered potentially harmful.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance and can be present in ground water that has not come into contact with cement pipes. The asbestos travels through the soil and may be carried to reservoirs before finally settling to the bottom. This manner in which asbestos finds its way into water is not the leading mode of pollution. Most often, the deterioration of cement pipes as well as other materials containing asbestos is the cause of this contamination.
The possible health threat of asbestos from cement pipes in water systems goes beyond its potential danger to the general public. Plumbers and pipe fitters who have worked with these systems are at an increased risk of asbestos-related health problems. When pipes need to be repaired or replaced, these individuals may come into direct contact with the asbestos fibers as the cutting and removal of the lines may cause the particles to become airborne. Once airborne, they can easily be inhaled and lodged into the lungs. The introduction of these fibers into a person’s body puts them at risk of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.