W5 investigation reveals asbestos cement pipes beneath Winnipeggers' feet
For decades, starting in the 1950s and ’60s the City of Winnipeg laid hundreds of kilometres of asbestos cement pipes across the city. Now those pipes and the asbestos fibres within them are causing concerns.
A recent W5 investigation has found there are 721 kilometres of asbestos cement pipes in Winnipeg, and 25 per cent of the water main networks is also made of the material.
The city was using the asbestos cement pipes in the 1950s and ’60s through to the early 1990s to provide better protection against corrosion.
In the decades since, asbestos fibres have been determined to be deadly if inhaled. Now the hundreds of kilometres of asbestos cement pipes beneath Winnipeggers' feet are raising worries.
"I am concerned that people can get cancer from the ingestion, including through asbestos cement water pipes," Arthur Frank, a public health professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, told W5.
Frank said he is worried it is possible asbestos can cause gastrointestinal tract cancer even if ingested rather than inhaled.
"There is no safe level of an exposure to a cancer-causing agent," Frank said.
Health Canada says there is no evidence drinking or ingesting asbestos is harmful to human health and so there is currently no maximum limit that can be in Canadian water.
However, Brian Mayes, chair of Winnipeg's water and waste committee, says the American Environmental Protection Agency says if the fibre length is shorter than 10 micrometres it is too small to cause any damage. Longer ones are different, and it will not allow more than 7 million long fibres per litre of water.
"It was tested for an 11-year arc between the early ’80s and the mid ’90s, and we didn't find any of these long fibres over that whole 11-year arc, so the testing was discontinued then," Mayes said.
Still, advocate Julian Branch can't understand why there isn't widespread testing for asbestos in Canadian drinking water, and why there isn't more urgency on the part of elected officials.
"We can't just keep pretending it's not there. We have to find a solution to this before it's too late," Branch told W5.
That solution may come with time as those asbestos cement pipes are on the way out in Winnipeg.
"We haven't been putting it in newer developments in decades," Mayes told CTV News. "We are gradually reducing the kilometerage of pipes that has the asbestos."
In a statement, provincial Environment Minister Kevin Klein told CTV News, "Manitoba municipalities follow all provincial drinking water standards which are based on Health Canada guidelines. Health Canada has concluded there is no evidence asbestos fibres in drinking water is harmful to health."
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