The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Yet, researchers have only found clear ties to asbestos exposure in about 80% of all mesothelioma cases. This leads us to ask, “What’s going on in the rest of those cases?”
One possible answer is that the cases still owe to asbestos exposure. It’s just that the researchers were unable to identify the exposure. After all, most people think of asbestos exposure in terms of work-related activities. But it’s possible to suffer asbestos exposure in other ways. And some scientists suggest those ways may involve, among other things, your drinking water.
The science is concerning
A team of researchers from the University of Bologna recently explored the issue of asbestos in drinking water. As they noted, most pleural mesothelioma follows the inhalation of airborne asbestos. However, they wondered whether our colons and other organs could absorb the asbestos we ingest, such as that in drinking water.
To dig into this question, they reviewed the existing literature. Much of this literature was of suspect quality, due to limited sample sizes and certain biases in the data sets. However, the data largely supported the idea that, yes, asbestos in the water can make its way into the body.
In fact, the researchers made particular note of several facts and findings:
- The EPA has set a “safe” limit for asbestos fibers at 7 million per liter. The EPA’s research has previously indicated that any higher level of asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of cancer.
- One study, involving volunteers who drank water from Lake Superior, showed that only 1% of the asbestos fibers in the water exited the body in urine. This suggests that the volunteer’s bodies absorbed most of the asbestos fibers.
- Studies showed correlations between asbestos absorption and multiple forms of cancer, including mesothelioma, colorectal, lung, stomach and prostate.
- Water samples from Lake Superior shot as high as 9.5 times the “safe” amount of asbestos fibers.
- Samples from San Francisco Bay ranged as high as 36 million fibers per liter, or 5 times the “safe” amount.
- Samples from Western Washington State averaged 200 million fibers per liter, or nearly 30 times the “safe” amount.
- Samples from Woodstock, New York, ranged from 3.2 million fibers all the way up to 304.5 million fibers, more than 43 times the “safe” limit.
Accordingly, the researchers suggest that asbestos in the drinking water may contribute to some mesothelioma cases. The good news for people in the United States is that our water tends to have less asbestos than water in parts of Europe. Asbestos-lined pipes in places like Italy and the UK increase the risk to residents.
More asbestos means more risk
As the EPA weighs a new ban on asbestos, this study reinforces the importance of reducing the risk of asbestos exposure. It clearly shows that asbestos is hazardous in all forms, not just when inhaled.
This supports what we already know about the dangers of asbestos exposure. There’s no level of exposure that we know to be safe. Second-hand asbestos can cause mesothelioma. The mineral is a dangerous carcinogen that we ought to control.