Water Education - Contaminants Facts

Drinking Water Contaminants- Asbestos

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This is a factsheet about a chemical that may be found in some public or private drinking water supplies. It may cause health problems if found in amounts greater than the health standard set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Example of Asbestos

What is Asbestos and how is it used?

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral occurring in natural deposits. Because asbestos fibers are resistant to heat and most chemicals, they have been mined for use in over 3,000 different products, including roofing materials, brake pads, and cement pipe often used in distributing water to communities.

Why is Asbestos being regulated?

In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law requires EPA to determine safe levels of chemicals in drinking water that do or may cause health problems. These non-enforceable levels, based solely on possible health risks and exposure, are called Maximum Contaminant Level Goals.

The MCLG for asbestos has been set at 7 million fibers per liter of water (M.L.) because EPA believes this level of protection would not cause any of the potential health problems described below.

Based on this MCLG, EPA has set an enforceable standard called a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). MCLs are set as close to the MCLGs as possible, considering the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.

The MCL has also been set at 7 M.L. because EPA believes, given present technology and resources, this is the lowest level to which water systems can reasonably be required to remove this contaminant should it occur in drinking water.

These drinking water standards and the regulations for ensuring these standards are met, are called National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. All public water supplies must abide by these regulations.

What are the health effects?

Short-term: Asbestos is not known to cause any health problems when people are exposed to it at levels above the MCL for relatively short periods of time.

Long-term: Asbestos has the potential to cause the following effects from a lifetime exposure at levels above the MCL: lung disease; cancer.

How much Asbestos is produced and released to the environment?

Asbestos fibers may be released from natural sources such as erosion of asbestos-containing ores, but the primary source is through the wear or breakdown of asbestos-containing materials, particularly from the wastewaters of mining and other industries, and by the use of asbestos cement pipes in water supply systems.

From 1987 to 1993, according to the Toxics Release Inventory, asbestos releases to water and land totaled nearly 9 million lbs. These releases were primarily from asbestos products industries that use asbestos in roofing materials, friction materials, and cement. The largest releases occurred in Pennsylvania and Louisiana.

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