How Does Asbestos Cause Water Supply Contamination?

Communities impacted by water supply contamination often wonder how it began, what to do, and how to avoid it. Do you live in a location affected by water pollution from toxins like asbestos? Not sure what that is? Asbestos is a toxic mineral that forms deep underground in rock and soil deposits. Before people knew the mineral was toxic, however, they used asbestos compounds to strengthen materials in a range of industries. When asbestos is mined, processed, and manufactured as a protective coating or insulation, natural wear will eventually break it down to dust or powder. This accelerates its reintroduction to the environment, potentially causing water contamination to nearby sources.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s that researchers began noticing the latent harmful effects prolonged asbestos exposure had on people. Sometimes it took over 20 years for related diseases like mesothelioma or lung cancer to develop. By then, it was already too late, people had been using the poisonous mineral to reinforce building materials all over the world for decades.

Natural Wear and Tear

When infrastructure’s intact, the mineral’s not much harm. As time passes, however, materials wear down, are demolished, destroyed, or refurbished. When this happens, tiny asbestos fibers are more likely to be released into the surrounding area. Manufacturing processes like sewer overflows or wastewater releases can also break down and wash the fibers around.

Natural Disasters

Humans aren’t the only ones causing damage. If natural disasters ravage contaminated buildings, machines, or toxic waste and dump sites, asbestos and other carcinogens are spread into the environment. When fibers get caught and transported through heavy winds or smoke, they can travel hundreds of miles to nearby communities and their water sources.

Toxic Water Mains

In the early 1900s and for about 60 years after that, asbestos-coated cement was used to build water mains throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. The mineral was well-known for its resiliency and ability to help materials withstand wear and tear from heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion. As water systems age and eventually experience breakage anyway, asbestos coatings can break off worn pipes and fall into public water sources causing water supply contamination. Other materials that cause water contamination include worn asbestos tile and mine processing waste that runs into cisterns, aquifers, rivers, streams, or other bodies of water.

Misconceptions

Another major contributor to asbestos environmental pollution was society’s enduring misconception about how the mineral moves. For years scientists believed that asbestos fibers were unable to travel through soil, it was only recently they discovered otherwise. After experimenting, researchers discovered that water could dissolve organic matter in soil that allowed it to latch onto asbestos particles. This changed their electric charge and enabled asbestos fibers to move swiftly through the dirt after all. As a universal solvent, water can break down more substances than any other liquid known to man. When crumbled asbestos particles and waste are coated with wet dirt and also next to a water source, toxins can be quickly spread when the water lubricates and dissolves them.

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What Happens If Water Is Contaminated?

When humans, livestock, animals, or pets have prolonged contact with polluted water, it can negatively impact their health. One 2015 study cited 1.8 million human deaths from water pollution that year alone. Besides mortality, side effects of consuming polluted water can include gastrointestinal illnesses, reproductive problems, or neurological issues among other things. Additionally, sick or dead animals can also release infectious microorganisms and bacteria into the soil that further pollute nearby bodies of water.

Types of Water Pollution

Water contamination comes in many forms and impacts a range of water sources. The various categories of water pollution are:

Agricultural

Related operations use the greatest amount of global freshwater resources. 70 percent of the earth’s water supplies are used or polluted from agricultural use. This encompasses farming, livestock, animal waste, and the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Agricultural processes can also cause nutrient pollution, which is caused when too much nitrogen and phosphorus are introduced into water or air. This excess mixture of elements causes algal blooms, poisonous algae that can harm humans and animals who are exposed.

Ground

Aquifers are natural water well systems made of sediment and rock. They’re meant to store precipitation underground that residents can utilize through a spring or well. When rain falls and seeps into soil contaminated with asbestos near an aquifer, an important natural resource is compromised. Almost 40 percent of Americans depend on groundwater to drink, it’s one of California’s primary water supplies. Once an aquifer is contaminated with toxins, restoring it is expensive and can take hundreds or even thousands of years.

Ocean

Most marine or ocean pollution (80 percent) festers on land. Streams and rivers can swiftly transport waste from nearby civilizations to bays and estuaries that connect and release them to the ocean. Strong winds also contribute by spreading plastics and other small debris through the air. Additionally, the ocean absorbs air toxins, oil leaks, and chemical spills released by man-made machines and craft. Researchers estimate the ocean takes in approximately one-fourth of industrial carbon emissions.

Point source

As the name suggests, point source pollution is water supply contamination caused by one entity. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states, “pollution from a pipe, ditch, ship, or factory smokestack”. Oil refineries, sewage treatment plants, steel factories, pulp, and paper mills, chemical plants, and electronic and automobile manufacturers are all large contributors to point source pollution. Another form of point source pollution is stimulated by nature itself. Extra rainy seasons sometimes cause sewer systems to overload and cause runoff. If runoff occurs, raw sewage will overflow into the nearest water source untreated.

Nonpoint source

Opposite of point source, this type of contamination is caused by multiple outlets and is the leading cause of water pollution in the United States. Since there is no single, identifiable cause of toxicity, the nonpoint source is difficult to control and regulate.

Sewage and waste

Contaminants in used water eventually become sewage or wastewater through the use of sinks, showers, toilets, and irrigation, in residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural processes. Research suggests that approximately 80 percent of global wastewater is reintroduced back into the environment as is, or without treatment. The EPA estimates that this equals about 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater a year. In underdeveloped regions, this percent jumps up to about 95 percent.

Surface

Surface water encompasses approximately 70 percent of the earth. Oceans, lakes, streams, and rivers fall into the category of surface water sources. Americans rely on over 60 percent of freshwater bodies from surface waters to drink (excluding ocean water). Surveys from the EPA guestimate that over half of rivers, streams, and lakes are at risk for extreme contamination, rendering them unsafe for swimming, drinking, or fishing.

Transboundary

When pollution travels via air, water, or other format from one location to another, it’s transboundary. This can happen from natural disasters like fires, floods, and tornados, or manufactured disasters like oil spills, or improper municipal discharge.

Other Toxins and Contaminants to Look Out For

Asbestos isn’t the only pollutant found in contaminated water supplies. Other compounds, minerals, elements, or chemicals that can cause harm include:

  • Arsenic
  • Copper
  • Fluoride
  • Radon
  • Uranium
  • Fertilizers and pesticides
  • Oil
  • Radiation substances

Besides poisonous minerals and chemicals that seep into bodies of water, another pollutant to consider is bacteria. Since moisture stimulates bacteria growth, public water systems might be affected by the following outbreaks at any given time:

  • Giardia
  • Legionella
  • Norovirus
  • Shigella
  • Campylobacter
  • Salmonella
  • Hepatitis A
  • Cryptosporidium
  • E. coli

Giardia is a bacterial infection that not only affects humans but is common in dogs who spend a lot of time outside or play in rivers. While sometimes dogs may pass the bacteria with no adverse reactions, symptoms they may experience are diarrhea, fatigue, and vomiting. Contact your doctor or veterinarian immediately if you or your pet have any of these issues after swimming or drinking water from a public source.

Is There Enough Asbestos in the Water to Make Me Sick?

While trace amounts of asbestos are found in bodies of water, most U.S. communities don’t have enough in their reserves to cause illness. Underdeveloped regions, however, have higher concentrations of the mineral and other toxins in their water to cause lung diseases and foodborne illness among others. This is common in poorer communities that have less access to clean water and have to use contaminated sources for farming and crop production.

Regulations Against Asbestos and Other Contaminants in U.S. Waters

National organizations put together guidelines and regulations to protect U.S. residents from exposure to toxins. They do this by regulating and setting standards for companies and their dumping of hazardous waste materials.

The Clean Water Act

The EPA used the Clean Water Act (CWA) to set industry standards in place for proper handling and disposal of waste and wastewater. The CWA was first passed in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act until it was expanded in 1972 and called the Clean Water Act. This renewed bill contained standard guidelines and regulations for the quality of surface water as well as maintaining it.

The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)

Developed under the CWA, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) is a permit program that companies need to apply and get approved before they dispose of waste in bodies of water as point source systems.

Safe Water System (SWS)

Organizations put together the Safe Water System (SWS), or regulations that enforce behavior change towards water contamination. There are three steps to the SWS:

1. Household water treatment
2. Safe storage of treated water
3. Modifications to hygiene, sanitation, and handling standards for water and food

These SWS resources are to provide insight and guidance to citizens who need to efficiently treat and store water in their communities.

Other Water Supply Safety Helpful Links and Info.

If you want to learn more about wastewater safety, your local Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can supply you with helpful resources and information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is another organization that produces helpful resources about water management and safety.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

To combat rampant exposure, the EPA placed restrictions on asbestos waste piles thrown on soil. They also utilize resources from the Superfund program to further clean up toxic sites they find if the responsible entity doesn’t or can’t adequately do it themselves.

1)Safe Ground Water and Drinking Water Hotline

– Call Toll-Free: 1-800-426-4791

2)General EPA Service Lines for Various Topics

– Drinking-Water Hotline: 800-426-4791

– Asbestos Hotline: 800-368-5888

3)Water Enforcement

4)Waste, Chemical, and Cleanup Enforcement

Contact your local EPA for more information or to report asbestos danger or risk in the environment, public water supplies, or anywhere else.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC has a number of resources for public health professionals, community organizations, non-governmental organizations, and other advocates or individuals who want more information about the Safe Water System.

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Think You Were Exposed to Water Supply Contamination?

Laws are in place to protect the environment and everyone living in it from negligent exposure and injury from asbestos and other substances in water systems.  Additionally, there are national and state laws banning the use of asbestos and holding building owners, managers, and contractors accountable for ensuring the worksite or residence is free of dangerous levels of asbestos before allowing employees or residents to frequent the area. If you or someone you know get sick and are diagnosed with mesothelioma or other illness from exposure to toxins from a water supply contamination (or other area) you have legal rights. Fill out a case evaluation to find out what your options are.

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