Many people don’t realise that much of the piping which feeds water into their homes is made of asbestos cement. And while that may well be safe, it is difficult to find anybody in authority to say so with certainty and the carcinogenic nature of asbestos dust instills terror from a health perspective.
Like elsewhere in Ireland and around the world, the asbestos cement was used in Waterford up to 15 or 20 years ago when plastic piping – lighter, more durable and safer for the workers installing it – came into use.
But of course many miles of the old piping still run through Waterford city and county and while engineers attached to both Councils are of the strong view that there is no danger to health, they admit they cannot say so categorically
Pat McCarthy and Eamon Lonergan, Senior Engineers for the county and city water services respectively, say their opinions are that there is no risk, that the only threat from asbestos is when it is inhaled.
But not everyone is convinced. Stradbally dairy farmer Tom Hickey for one, who challenged the County Council in Brussels six years ago over alleged pollution in his local cove, is afraid to drink his tap water. He cites the fact that the asbestos piping in the vicinity of a nearby quarry has had to be repaired several times in the last six to eight months. And he says he knows people who insist on boiling the water before allowing their families drink it.
A spokesperson for the HSE, contacted by this newspaper, expressed surprise to be queried on the matter at all, saying they depended for guidance on advice from the local authorities which had responsibility for such matters.
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The EPA referred our reporter to its website which highlights the dangers of asbestos dust but says the substance in solid form is “less risky”. A spokeswoman said the enquiry would be more appropriate to the Health and Safety Authority, but a spokesman for that body said it was outside its remit. He said the only danger was from asbestos dust being inhaled, but when asked if that meant the piping was safe he stopped short of giving any assurance – all he could say was to repeat that the query was outside the Authority’s remit.
So although it may well be that the old piping is safe, there is an absence of clarity, despite Environment Minister of the day, Dick Roche, stating in 2005 that there was no health risk involved. That was in reply to a Dail question from the Green Party’s Dan Boyle.
A seven year old review of the situation by the Foundation for Water Research in Britain concluded that “the fibres in drinking water consist almost entirely of short fibres, which are considered to contribute little or no risk to public health”.
But questions still remain, especially in view of American reports, one of them on Asbestos.com which states that a Department of Health and Human Services survey of 538 cities found that 65 p.c. of them had asbestos in their water and of those 9 p.c. had levels that, according to health experts, were “a cause for concern”.
Another report, for a Canadian newspaper, refers to “alarming levels of invisible, needle-like fibres of asbestos in tap water, much of it coming from an estimated 400,000 miles of asbestos cement water pipe”.
“Yet”, said the report, “scientists and government officials cannot agree on how serious this hazard actually is, or even on what levels are acceptable”.
An EPA spokesman is quoted in the report as saying that while asbestos breathed in was definitely carcinogenic, the jury was still out as far as asbestos in water was concerned.