9 July 2018
A Hidden Carcinogen in Water: How the SDGs Can Help
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Bringing an end to asbestos in drinking water - in developed and developing countries - aligns seamlessly with SDG 6.

It will also help communities and countries achieve other Goals, for instance, SDG 12 on responsible consumption and production, which addresses harmful chemicals and wastes, and SDG 3 on good health and well-being.

When people think about sustainable development goals, they often envision arid developing countries or communities struggling in the wake of a natural disaster. While this is partially accurate, these sustainability goals are far more encompassing, impacting all degrees of development and civilization. Water quality is certainly an important issue and an integral part of achieving sustainable and healthy communities. Today, developed nations like the United States are experiencing a number of water quality issues caused by contamination from toxic substances, including asbestos.

Asbestos in Drinking Water

Asbestos is a group of silicate minerals infamous for its carcinogenic properties. It is typically associated with mid-20th century construction and manufacturing, but its influence holds strong to this day, even in countries that have restricted its use. In the United States, asbestos use has been regulated since the 1970s, but exposure continues to be a pressing issue in older buildings and infrastructure. These structures include water pipelines spanning thousands of miles within a number of continents, including North America, Europe, and Australia. Asbestos-cement pipes were constructed as vital pieces of water distribution systems in the 1930s, before asbestos’ harmful health effects became known. Over time, these pipes experience breakage and decay, releasing heightened levels of asbestos fibers into water supplies.

The impact of drinking asbestos-tainted water has not been very conclusive to date. However, studies that are available and have collected data over several decades do see a tie between drinking contaminated water and higher incidence of cancer, including rare forms like mesothelioma. Because of the nature of asbestos-related diseases, symptoms may not be detected for several years until the cancer is fully developed. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has capped permitted asbestos levels at 7 MFL, but this is often exceeded when pipes are damaged, or water sources are polluted.

In other cases, asbestos contamination stems from environmental factors. Proximity to a construction site handling asbestos or a landfill containing asbestos products can sweep fibers into surrounding areas through the air or toxic runoff. This adds to the asbestos fibers naturally found in bedrock and soil that may be leaching into watersheds. While most water providers continually test and filter water before distribution, microscopic asbestos fibers are not always easy to detect. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA mandates that water providers must notify customers within 30 days after detecting high levels of contamination.

Addressing toxins in water can help achieve gains across the development spectrum.

Tie to SDGs

SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation is one of the 17 global Goals the United Nations is implementing to tackle key development issues. The water goal aims to establish clean and sustainable water systems by 2030, which includes aspects of water pollution, conservation, sanitation, and community involvement associated with water maintenance. While bringing an end to asbestos in drinking water aligns seamlessly with SDG 6, it will also help communities and countries achieve other Goals – for instance, SDG 12 on responsible consumption and production, which addresses harmful chemicals and wastes, and SDG 3 on good health and well-being, among others. Initiatives that positively impact water supplies and the environment at large will also benefit and protect public health for years to come.

However, despite the ambitions of the SDGs, water crises driven by harmful toxins and pollution are occurring more frequently – in developed and developing countries. While strict management and conservation of water sources is needed to help control contamination, it may not be enough. An ideal long-term solution will include phasing out the use of harmful materials like asbestos and lead, while focusing on replacing and upgrading sustainable infrastructure.

The SDGs will make an integral contribution to our collective ecological prosperity and health, but for this to happen, we have to pinpoint issues like asbestos-water contamination and work towards solutions. The Goals will help hold governments, organizations, and the public accountable for making changes and improving conditions. They provide a needed framework that shows how addressing toxins in water can help achieve gains across the development spectrum – one community at a time.

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