Health concerns raised over asbestos in tap water

Health concerns raised over asbestos in tap water

As asbestos cement pipes supplying drinking water degrade across the UK, experts ask whether they pose a risk to human health.

Scotland has one of the highest rates of asbestos-related diseases in the world, connected to a history of heavy industry where asbestos was previously used. In 2014 Scotland was found to have the highest global rate of mesothelioma, a cancer of the linings of certain organs.

Now experts fear that Scotland and other nations may be on the cusp of a new wave of asbestos cases.

An investigation by The Ferret, part of a cross-border probe into asbestos in the environment, looked at the legacy of ageing asbestos cement (A/C) water pipes which supply drinking water. 

A/C cement pipes in the UK are more likely to burst than any material except for cast iron and we can reveal that the burst rate of asbestos cement water pipes in Scotland has increased sharply – up 49 per cent between 2017 and 2021, from 860 to 1280 bursts in the timeframe. 

Scottish Water also has one of the highest overall numbers of bursts in the UK – 4186 over the five-year period. The high burst rate for A/C pipes was mirrored and even exceeded in only a few other water company areas. United Utilities, in the north-west of England, showed a particularly sharp increase in such pipes bursting and needing repair, from only 60 in 2017 to 1460 in 2021, an increase of over 2000 per cent in just five years. Anglia Water saw an 18 per cent increase and Welsh Water had a 39 per cent increase.

Experts fear that as these water pipes age, fibres can leach into the drinking water supply and could be linked to certain cancers. Using Environmental Information Regulations requests across the UK, our investigation looked at how old asbestos cement water pipes were in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, how often they were bursting and what percentage of asbestos cement water pipes there were in each water company area. 

There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

Dr Arthur Frank, Drexel University

In Scotland, nearly two-thirds of asbestos cement water pipes (62 per cent) are over seventy years old, with six per cent being even older, dating from the 1940s and earlier.

Scottish Water and five other companies – Anglian Water, Irish Water, Welsh Water, Severn Trent and United Utilities – own around three-quarters of A/C pipes in the whole of the UK. In Scotland, 12 per cent of mains water pipes are made out of asbestos cement and there are 3584 miles of them in total.  

One reason pipes burst is their age, according to 2020 research by the UK Water Industry Research organisation (UKWIR). Its report found that around 60 per cent of the 31,000 miles of asbestos cement water pipes in the UK and Ireland were installed more than 50 years ago, meaning that many are reaching the age of failure. 

The report also found that “their failure rate appears to be increasing”, adding, “The cost to replace the stock of A/C water mains in the UK and Ireland would be between £5bn and £8bn.” This would come on top of the billions of pounds the government has estimated it would cost to separate out the rainwater and sewage system.

The Ferret’s cross-border investigation found that this landscape of ageing asbestos cement water pipes, with increasing numbers of bursts, is mirrored in other European countries as well as in South Africa, Australia and the US. 

Ingestion as a route of exposure to asbestos

Concerns about drinking water and exposure through swallowing fibres are being voiced by a number of experts including Dr Arthur Frank, Professor of Public Health and Medicine at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He told The Ferret: “The evidence is getting clearer and clearer. My concern is that it is in drinking water. The risk may not be great. But it is generally accepted that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.” 

Every four years the World Health Organisation (WHO) produces drinking water guidelines adhered to in most countries, including in the UK. The latest guidelines, published in 2022, point to studies that do seem to suggest an increased risk of some cancers. But the WHO ultimately concluded then that it was not “appropriate or necessary to establish a guideline value for asbestos fibres in drinking water”.

Yet the report also said that it was “appropriate to minimise the concentrations of asbestos fibres in drinking water as far as practical”, and said that  “investigative monitoring should be considered”.

In the UK, WHO drinking water guidelines are effectively replicated by the Drinking Water Inspectorate, a section of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It last examined the subject in detail over 20 years ago, with its report acknowledging that “most waters in the UK” contain asbestos fibres. 

Despite this, the DWI does not expect water companies to monitor asbestos in water, and does not do so itself, referring to the WHO guidelines. Scottish Water, like other companies, therefore does not test for asbestos in drinking water. 

In 2012 the International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) which is part of the WHO, reviewed the evidence up to 2009 and raised concerns about asbestos entering drinking water supplies in its report, Arsenics, Metals, Fibres and Dusts. “Inhalation and ingestion are the primary routes of exposure to asbestos,” the report said, explaining that, “exposure may also occur via ingestion of drinking water, which has been contaminated with asbestos through…corrosion of asbestos-containing cement pipes” – as well as from landfills and other routes.

In October 2021 the European Parliament adopted a resolution on asbestos, calling for regular monitoring of fibres in water “in case there is a risk to human health” and for a removal plan for the pipes. But when the resolution became law in the form of the Asbestos Work Directive in late 2023, the wording on water pipes was removed. 

Health concerns raised over asbestos in tap water
“Over 5000 people die every year from asbestos-related diseases. Diseases that are preventable,” said Rachel Gallagher from Clydebank Asbestos Group. Image: wutwhanfoto/iStock

Concerned voices in Scotland

Professor Andrew Watterson, a public health researcher at the University of Stirling, who has seen the data, told The Ferret: “As a public utility, accountable to the Scottish Government, it is to be hoped that Scottish Water is and will continue to be fully transparent about the state of its asbestos cement water pipes, their burst rates which seem to be very high in recent years and their replacement. 

“This is of concern because of the potential worker health and safety, and wider environmental risks posed by materials containing the carcinogen asbestos. It is also worrying that the normal end-of-life replacement time for such pipes in Scotland could apparently be up to double that operated elsewhere in the world.”

He added that the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that asbestos cement pipes have a lifespan of 50 years, yet Scottish Water is not aiming to replace them within that time frame. 

Rachel Gallagher, from the Clydebank Asbestos Group, said: “The increase in the number of asbestos cement burst pipes in Scotland is deeply concerning. These pipes are old and their condition is continuing to deteriorate, ultimately putting lives at risk. At risk are the people who will work and handle these pipes, but also the wider populations that the pipes serve. Over 5000 people die every year from asbestos-related diseases. Diseases that are preventable. That is why it is important for all organisations to be aware of their responsibility to take effective action to prevent such risks to the public”.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said they took Scotland’s drinking water quality “very seriously” and adhered to standards set out by the EU and WHO.

A spokesperson for Scottish Water said the company takes action to reduce the risk of bursts. “We are proactively targeting A/C pipe replacement as we know these mains are coming to the end of their useful life (50–70 years) and cause interruptions to supply due to more frequent bursts,” they said, explaining that the company is guided by public health standards from the WHO. The spokesperson added: “New pipes being installed across our network are always plastic. A/C water pipes, while completely safe, are no longer used primarily because plastic is now known to be more reliable over time.”

The Cross-border investigation on ‘Asbestos in water pipes’ is made in a collaboration between Investigative Reporting Denmark, IRPIMedia in Italy, Oštro Slovenia and Oštro Croatia, Reporters Foundation in Poland, BBC and The Ferret in the UK and TV2 Nord in Denmark. The investigation is supported by Journalismfund Europe | Stimulating investigative cross-border journalism.

This Ferret story was also published in the Sunday National. Our partnerships with other media help us reach new audiences and become more sustainable as a media co-op.  Join us to read all our stories and tell us what we should investigate next.

Main image: Rawpixel/iStock

  1. I think There is a cover up by all government and health authorities as it is financially a easier way to compensate people dying from mesothelioma It would cause financial problems for the UK ,so life is cheap it takes between 10 to 50 years for mesothelioma to show in the human body ,but age group are getting younger .There is very little support for new treatments financially as most support goes on many other types of cancer .

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