The District of Kitimat’s (DOK) water system was built at the same time as the town, 70 years ago. At that time and up until the 1970s it was quite common for municipalities to use asbestos cement pipes in water distribution systems.
A recent investigation by the CTV program W5 noted that 90 per cent of the towns, municipalities and districts that responded to their queries had existing asbestos cement pipes calling into question just how safe Canadian drinking water is.
The Northern Sentinel confirmed with the District of Kitimat that “approximately 10 per cent of Kitimat’s current waterlines are made from asbestos-cement. That is in the range of seven to eight kilometres of pipe, to put it into numbers.”
An interactive map accompanying the CTV story indicates other jurisdictions in the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine also use the pipes including rural Terrace, Thornhill and South Hazelton, as well as, dozens of other municipalities around the province.
When asbestos fibres are in the air, the tiny fibres get trapped in the lungs and can cause serious health problems, including scarring of the lungs and a myriad of cancers. Asbestos fibres cannot be removed after exposure.
While the link between asbestos inhalation and cancer is well-established, the potential health effects of ingesting the mineral are less clear.
What is clear, however, is that asbestos concrete deteriorates over time.
“Asbestos fibres may also be released from asbestos-cement pipes that carry drinking water from the treatment plant into your home,” says Health Canada.
However, the federal ministry also says: “There’s no consistent, convincing evidence that asbestos ingested through drinking water is harmful to your health.”
There is currently no maximum limit for asbestos in Canadian water and the DOK does not currently test for asbestos fibres in the water.
The link between asbestos in drinking water and elevated risk of cancer is difficult to establish without mandated testing and screening for asbestos in the water, and cross-analysis of cancer rates among those exposed to the water.
While correlation does not equal causation, some studies have found links between elevated cancer risks and asbestos consumption.
A new water treatment system is in the works for Kitimat, but other major renovations or upgrades have been limited.
The DOK has begun the process of upgrading its infrastructure by putting in place additional filtration methods. However, there are currently no plans to address the asbestos pipes.
The new water treatment system will include water conditioning, direct sand ﬁltration, and UV disinfection. The project began in early March of 2022, and is planned to be complete by the end of 2023 and will cost an estimated $8.25 million.