Council has revealed almost 20 per cent of the shire’s pipelines contain asbestos cement.
Manager of water and sewerage services Jim Collins said the weight of evidence indicates ingested asbestos is not hazardous to people’s health, but there is a potential danger from dust when the pipes are disturbed.
“The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines 2011 indicate there are insufficient data to set a guideline value for asbestos in drinking water,” he said.
“It is unlikely, however, that the numbers of asbestos fibres present in most drinking water supplies would be a health concern.”
Of the 621 kilometres of water pipelines in the shire, installed between the 1940s and the mid-1980s, 117 kilometres consists of asbestos cement, or AC.
According to the federal government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, while the “risk of contracting an asbestos‑related disease from ingesting asbestos is considered low”, the “bigger risk remains from the degrading pipes being excavated from the ground and disposed of at another site”.
The Water Services Association of Australia says there is “no elevated” risk of asbestos-related diseases from drinking or using water from asbestos cement pipes.
“Over the past four years WSAA and our members have also been involved with research
carried out in Canada and the US designed to ensure that guideline levels around asbestos
cement pipes are appropriate,” the association states.
The federal government’s Australian Drinking Water Quality Guidelines state there is no evidence of cancer from ingested asbestos.
The guidelines do say it is “not clear whether asbestos fibres ingested in drinking water can pass through the walls of the gastrointestinal tract in sufficient numbers to cause adverse effects”, and animal studies “on the carcinogenic effects of ingested asbestos have been inconclusive”.
“The guideline should be reviewed as soon as more toxicological data are available,” it reads.
Mr Collins said the pipes are being replaced with alternative materials, and council takes the safety of its staff around asbestos seriously.
“AC pipe is renewed and replaced with alternative materials such as unplasticised polyvinyl chloride (uPVC) in accordance with our Water Asset Management Plan 2015,” he said.
“The Water Directorate publication Cutting, Handling and Disposal of Asbestos Cement Pipe Guidelines 2014 is followed for repairs, renewals and disposals involving AC pipe.”
According to council’s water management plan, the majority of the water supply network was “constructed by developers and from government grants, often provided and accepted without consideration of ongoing operations, maintenance and replacement needs”.
As many of the assets require replacing, “services from the assets are decreasing and maintenance costs are increasing”, and a “funding shortfall” is preventing a needed upgrade of the system.
The ageing pipelines have been blamed for causing the discoloured water seen in the water supply in recent years.
Bega Valley Shire Residents and Ratepayers Association secretary John Richardson said “basic infrastructure such as that necessary to provide quality drinking water cannot be ignored”.
”As long as the provision of basic infrastructure is ignored by council and the state government, residents, ratepayers and visitors to the Bega Valley Shire will be entitled to believe that they are regarded by government as second class citizens,” he said.