Do asbestos pipes pose a public health risk in Ireland?

Asbestos can be found in approximately 6,300km of Ireland’s water mains, but there is no evidence to show that the use of this type of piping is dangerous, says Irish Water in a report from the Irish Times.

The existence of asbestos in the country’s water infrastructure has come into sharp focus following the bursting of an asbestos pipe outside Drogheda which has left tens of thousands without mains water supply for up to a week.

Valued for its durability and heat resistance, asbestos cement was commonly used for trunk mains in Ireland, the UK and across Europe from the 1950s through to the 1980s, and a 10 per cent of public water piping across Ireland is still of the asbestos variety.

No new asbestos pipes have been laid in Ireland since the 1980s, with materials such as plastic now preferred.

A note on asbestos in drinking water published by the World Health Organisation in 2003 plays down fears regarding consumption of asbestos in water. It reads:

“Although asbestos is a known human carcinogen by the inhalation route, available epidemiological studies do not support the hypothesis that an increased cancer risk is associated with the ingestion of asbestos in drinking water.

There is therefore no consistent, convincing evidence that ingested asbestos is hazardous to health, and it is concluded that there is no need to establish a guideline for asbestos in drinking water.”

The organisation has not altered its advice over the intervening period.

In a factfile available on its own website, the Environmental Protection Agency notes that asbestos is most harmful if dust containing the substance is inhaled, but falls short of declaring the substance entirely safe.

“The risk from asbestos where the fibres are still intact (such as in asbestos cement) is significantly reduced,” it says.

When contacted by The Irish Times, a spokeswoman for the agency deflected questions about asbestos in public piping to the Health and Safety Authority.

A spokesman for the authority said it only dealt with asbestos in a work safety context.

The water system is flushed out in the case of a break in order to negate the impact of foreign bodies entering the water supply.