Regina's water pipes contain asbestos but it's not dangerous
Most of the water pipes in Regina are made with a good portion of asbestos but according to an expert and city engineers you don't have to be afraid of it.
More than half the city's water pipes are made of a mixture of concrete and asbestos, a product that's notorious for being a powerful carcinogen when its fibers are inhaled.
A microbiologist has explained that there is actually a whole universe at work inside the pipes to help keep you safe from the asbestos.
You could say we're being saved by the slime.
Asbestos pipes became common around the world starting in the 1950's. Its fibrous nature made the pipes stronger than regular concrete pipes.
Since then, of course, the danger of asbestos has become clear and other countries and jurisdictions have removed the pipes. Regina, Moose Jaw, Edmonton, and other Canadian cities still use them.
Dr. Roy Cullimore is a Regina-based microbiologist and he studied the city's asbestos concrete pipes for a National Research Council report.
"The asbestos was put in the cement with the very best of intentions because the asbestos gave strength to the cement and the general premise was that it's a fibre-reinforced concrete. It must work better than the standard concrete and it did," he explained.
He also notes that his research shows that we're not fighting the asbestos alone. When he studied the AC pipes, he found a complex inner-working.
"There's a beautiful smooth coating on the inside of the pipe and when we got down to the microbiology of it -- no it was actually a complex community of microbes that were growing in there and there was actually four different communities," Cullimore said.
The idea of microbes in the water pipes may sound disturbing but he says those growths actually help to protect us from the asbestos.
The bacteria produce acids in the slimy growths and that acid eats into the concrete drawing asbestos fibres out because the bacteria leave the asbestos alone.
"What amazed me about this was that the asbestos was actually then woven into a sheet by the action of the water moving over and then the bacteria coat the fibres with growth," Cullimore said.
He says that growth called a patina helps hold the exposed asbestos fibres in place allowing the water to flow freely. He says in the past, some communities have tried to scrub that growth out without realizing the impact.
"You want to see the clean concrete, ok so you're going to take off everything or you can look at it like there's mother nature's scab. Don't knock the scabs off," he said.
Even if asbestos fibres make it into the water and into your tap, Sandy Bailey, Regina's manager of water and sewer engineering, says you shouldn't have to worry.
She noted that when workers handle the AC cement, they have to follow proper procedures because it is proven to be carcinogenic when it is breathed in but not when you actually drink or ingest it.
"When you ingest asbestos it has been deemed to be safe by the World Health Organization and Canada Health," Bailey explained.
She says the City of Regina doesn't monitor asbestos in the water levels for that reason.
The American Food and Drug Administration does monitor asbestos levels and it says there can't be more than seven milllion fibres per litre in drinking water. There are studies that show ingesting asbestos can contribute to the growth of benign polyps on the stomach or intestines.
However, Bailey says there's a good amount of research that shows that common food and beverages can contain even higher levels than that.
Cullimore also agrees our water is essentially harmless and cleaning asbestos out of the pipes is not a good idea.
"When you clean it out you break the fibres and when you break the fibres you release some fibres into the water," he said.
"We have a tolerance for some fibres and we have a very evolved system of digestion which helps prevent the asbestos getting into the body as such."
Edited by News Talk Radio's Adriana Christianson