[Possible health risks from asbestos in drinking water]

Epidemiol Prev. 2016 Nov-Dec;40(6):472-475. doi: 10.19191/EP16.6.P472.129.
[Article in Italian]


The recent finding of asbestos fibres in drinking water (up to 700.000 fibres/litres) in Tuscany (Central Italy) leads to concerns about health risks in exposed communities. Exposure to asbestos has been linked with cancer at several levels of the gastrointestinal tract, and it has been documented, in an animal model, a direct cytotoxic effect of asbestos fibres on the ileum. It has been recently described a possible link between asbestos and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, and asbestos fibres have been detected in humans in histological samples from colon cancer and in gallbladder bile. Taken together, these findings suggest the possibility of an enterohepatic translocation of asbestos fibres, alternative to lymphatic translocation from lungs. In animal models, asbestos fibres ingested with drinking water act as a co-carcinogen in the presence of benzo(a) pyrene and, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC ), there is evidence pointing to a causal effect of ingested asbestos on gastric and colorectal cancer. The risk seems to be proportional to the concentration of ingested fibres, to the extent of individual water consumption, to exposure timing, and to the possible exposure to other toxics (i.e., benzo(a)pyrene). Furthermore, the exposure to asbestos by ingestion could explain the epidemiological finding of mesothelioma in subjects certainly unexposed by inhalation. In conclusion, several findings suggest that health risks from asbestos could not exclusively derive from inhalation of fibres. Health hazards might also be present after ingestion, mainly after daily ingestion of drinking water for long periods. In Italy, a systemic assessment of the presence of asbestos fibres in drinking water is still lacking, although asbestos-coated pipelines are widely diffused and still operating. Despite the fact that the existence of a threshold level for health risks linked to the presence of asbestos in drinking water is still under debate, the precautionary principle should impose all possible efforts in order to revise health policies concerning this topic, and a systematic monitoring of drinking water to quantify the presence of asbestos is certainly needed in all regions. Further epidemiological studies aimed to the identification of exposed communities and to an adequate health risk assessment in their specific geographical areas are urgently needed.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Asbestos / adverse effects*
  • Carcinogens*
  • Drinking Water / analysis*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms* / epidemiology
  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms* / etiology
  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms* / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Italy / epidemiology
  • Mesothelioma / epidemiology
  • Mesothelioma / etiology
  • Mesothelioma / prevention & control
  • Mineral Fibers / adverse effects
  • Pleural Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Pleural Neoplasms / etiology
  • Pleural Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Time Factors
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity*


  • Carcinogens
  • Drinking Water
  • Mineral Fibers
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Asbestos