Regina activist calling for regulations on asbestos pipes

A Regina resident is in favor of introducing regulations regarding asbestos-cement pipes because he believes it could seriously affect people’s health.

Julian Branch recently returned from Ottawa, where he and the advocacy group Prevent Cancer Now he works with met with Green Party leader Elizabeth May last week.

Together they claim that drinking water flowing through asbestos-cement pipes can cause cancer.

“I was there to bring attention and awareness to the fact that millions of Canadians use asbestos water pipes every day,” Branch said.

He said a study by Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) found that as pipes age, they deteriorate and crack, causing asbestos fibers to leach into the water.

“The same research shows that asbestos fibers in water pose a health risk. One study in particular from 2010 showed that they pose a risk of cancer,” he said.

He said this was a concern for Regina residents because nearly 600 km of water mains in the city were made of asbestos-cement water pipes.

According to the City of Regina’s website, it follows Health Canada guidelines, which read: “Health Canada has concluded that there is no consistent, convincing evidence that asbestos fibers ingested through water are harmful to health.”

Branch, however, said this view is outdated. He believes the federal government should regulate asbestos in water.

“In 1992, the United States of America regulated the use of asbestos in water. This came after 20 years of research into asbestos consumption. They decided, yes, they need to regulate.”

Branch believes it’s time for Canada to do the same.

“The question no one is willing or able to answer is: How can drinking asbestos cause cancer in Americans but not in Canadians? This doesn’t make any sense. That’s why something needs to change here,” he said.

Branch also believes the City of Regina isn’t doing enough to inform citizens about these pipes, especially when they break down.

“A water-asbestos-cement pipe does not resemble a typical pipe wrapped in asbestos. According to the NRC, these pipes actually contain up to 20 percent asbestos. It is mixed with cement as a binding agent throughout the pipe,” he said.

He explained that Regina’s clay soil often expands and contracts, damaging pipes. The branch reported that there were almost 2,500 ruptures in asbestos-cement water pipes between 2010 and 2022

“The problem is that the City of Regina does not tell residents what type of pipe was damaged. So they have no idea that asbestos-cement pipes are cracking,” Branch said.

Work is currently underway to install new water mains at Coronation Park. According to an email from the city, “the construction project at Coronation Park will involve the installation of new water mains made from high-density polyethylene – a strong and cost-effective material designed for long-term use in water mains.”

Online, the city said: “Asbestos-cement has not been used in new water pipes since the 1980s. As asbestos-cement pipes break in shifting soils and as infrastructure upgrades are planned, they will be refurbished or replaced with asbestos-free materials.

As for concerned citizens of Regina, Branch said there are some things they can do.

“The first thing they should do is ask their city councilor if they have asbestos-cement water pipes supplying water to their homes,” he said. “The City of Regina has released a map showing where the pipes are located and it is quite clear. “It is a clear visual representation of the seriousness of the problem.”

He said people should consider purchasing a water filter, reverse osmosis or purchasing bottled water.

Branch believes the city should consider replacing asbestos-cement pipes, as it did in 2022 with lead pipes.

“The difference is that lead is regulated in Canadian water and asbestos is not. So we come back to this need for regulation.”

He said he would continue to advocate for change.

“We are writing (Prevent Cancer Now) to health ministers and environment ministers and we have a parliamentary petition demanding action on this issue,” he said. “Because it won’t go away. The problem is that the problem will get worse as the pipes age. So we will continue to raise awareness of this issue and lobby the federal government for change.