Mexico City’s Water has been Contaminated with Asbestos for Years
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, but in Mexico the government continues to use it to build pipelines that carry drinking water to millions of people in Mexico City.
Drinking water in Mexico City is distributed through pipes made with of asbestos, a material known as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The tubes are replaced with polyethylene when broken, but most of the network is still made of pipes contaminated with asbestos, according to the city government.
The most recognized asbestos damage to the population is that of the workers who have directly been in contact with the material, however, all international health agencies warn that there is no safe level of exposure.
Still, Mexico is the largest importer of asbestos in Latin America.
“All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans”, specified the WHO in 2014 on a note related to diseases caused by this building material.
Asbestos fibers do not evaporate into air or dissolve in water, so inhalation or ingestion causes the particles to stay in the lungs or gastrointestinal tract, damaging human cells.
The risks of asbestos, are so well known that over 50 countries have banned or limited its use, including the European Union, Argentina and Honduras.
Mexico, far from limiting, has opposed the Rotterdam Convention, which requires exporting countries to label this product as a carcinogen.
According to Mexican health officials, Mexico is the largest importer of asbestos in the region, mainly from Brazil.
“Most of the water supply network is made with asbestos,” says the director of the Water System of Mexico City, Ramon Aguirre.
The official explained that the network is 60 years old and was built before knowing the harmful effects that asbestos has on humans.
The tubes are replaced by high-density polyethylene but only until a leak or failure is reported.
In other words, the Mexican government has turned its back on science and has left the population of Mexico City exposed to asbestos in drinking water, despite the fact that the material is a proven carcinogenic.
Leaks are also a risk factor, experts say, because breaking free asbestos particles do not disintegrate and fall in the water, so workers who repair the leak come into direct contact with the material.
Referring to the risk that people will develop cancer by consuming water from these pipes, Aguirre flatly rejected this possibility, because according to him, only workers develop it by direct contact.
The reason asbestos pipes should be replaced, according to the director of Sacmex, is not the risk of cancer, but its fragility, causing up to 40% of leaks. So for Mexican authorities it is a matter of economics, not of human health. Aguirre blames lack of resources for the slow pace at which workers have been substituting the pipes.
“Yes work is done but it is required to invest much more in that line, so we have a high incidence of leakage,” admitted the official, noting that at least $54 million dollars are needed for pipe replacement. An additional $652 million have been assigned to the local water system.
Mexico has no studies that directly relate asbestos to cancer but intake waste itself is associated with colon cancer, says the director of the National Cancer Institute, Abelardo Meneses.
Also, the American Cancer Society has warned that asbestos fibers can also be swallowed, “which may happen when people ingest contaminated food or liquids, such as water flowing through pipes built with asbestos”.