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Asbestos on tap: Water customers warned, mayor says ‘we don’t know what caused it’

Devine, located about 40 miles southwest of San Antonio, sent a letter to customers about too much asbestos in the drinking water. (Photo: Sinclair Broadcast Group)

SAN ANTONIO – Leaders of a small South Texas city are warning residents that for nearly a year, the level of asbestos in the drinking water has been too high.

They admit they don't know what caused the problem but are reassuring residents of Devine, located about 40 miles southwest of San Antonio, that the water is safe.

The city sent a letter to water customers, indicating 7 million fibers per liter (MFL) is the maximum amount of asbestos permitted by federal regulations. City water samples had more than twice the allowed amount: 14 MFL of asbestos in January, 17 MFL in April and 18 MFL in July.

“We're not like the city of Corpus Christi,” said Bill Herring, mayor of Devine, population 4,350. “We were not told by TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) to shut the water off. If it was any danger to the people of Devine, then we would've shut it off.”

TCEQ records reveal one reading in January of 44.3 MFL – more than six times the maximum contamination limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In October of last year, two samples contained more than twice the limit. However, in July 2015, all five samples taken registered a trace amount of asbestos, below 0.2 MFL.

“We hope it's just a sampling problem, not that the contaminants were there,” Herring said.

The city maintains the water is safe to drink, although the letter, mandated by TCEQ, includes this health warning: “This is not an emergency. However, some people who drink water containing asbestos in excess of the MCL over many years may have increased risk of developing benign intestinal polyps.”

“Sounds scary, doesn't it?” Herring said. “Benign means noncancerous. Intestinal polyps, that's why you have a colonoscopy to check it out, but again, I feel certain that this spike is hopefully caused by just a sampling problem.”

SOME RESIDENTS BUYING BOTTLED WATER

Folks in Devine have mixed levels of concern. Some are now buying bottled water or considering the switch.

“I don't want my one-year-old daughter, and I'm pregnant, I don't want to be drinking water with asbestos level that's not healthy, you know. That's not safe,” said Michelle Cashion of Devine.

Others, like Mickie Schulze, are unnerved but still drinking the water.

“Most people are like me. They're pretty level-headed and they understand,” Schulze said. “There are a few people that were like spazzing out because they thought what was going on in Corpus was happening in Devine.”

Some residents were only learning of the situation this week through a story in the local newspaper, The Devine News. Cashion said she received the city notice, dated Nov. 28, a week ago in the mail.

“How could this be something that is OK,” Cashion said, “that they just can send a letter and say ‘you know, it's not at a healthy level, but we're looking into it but go ahead and keep drinking it for now’?”

CANCER RISK OF ASBESTOS IN DRINKING WATER

A 1996 report from the World Health Organization found most Americans drink water containing asbestos at levels below 1 MFL. The WHO concluded there wasn’t a need to establish a guideline for asbestos in drinking water because “available epidemiological studies do not support the hypothesis that an increased cancer risk is associated with the ingestion of asbestos in drinking-water.”

The Texas Department of State Health Services is less conclusive on its website: “The health effects from oral asbestos exposures are unclear. In some areas where the residents are exposed to asbestos fibers in the drinking water, cancers of the esophagus, stomach, and intestine may be a greater concern. After reviewing the scientific evidence from human experience and animal testing(,) however, health authorities are still unsure of asbestos links to cancer in the digestive system.”

Mayor Herring said the city of Devine is working to find a solution, although it hasn’t yet identified the cause. He doesn’t believe pipes containing asbestos, which carry water to some residents, are the problem.

“There’s many theories of why it happened,” he said. “All of them are good. All of them are incorrect. We just don't know. I don't want to come across that we don't know what caused it, but that's the truth. We don't know what caused it.”

REDUCED LEVELS OF ASBESTOS IN LATEST SAMPLES

The city provided News 4 San Antonio with documentation that appears to show partial results from the latest round of water testing in October. Ismael Carrillo, Devine's director of public works, said the lab reports contain readings from four of the five homes that are tested each quarter. Results from the fifth, he said, haven't been received yet. The asbestos levels ranged from 2.8 to 5.1 million fibers per liter, which is below the EPA’s 7 MFL maximum.

A TCEQ spokesman said no one was available to answer questions Friday.

“The next step is to keep trying to find the problem and then work out a workable solution,” Herring said. “No matter what the cost, we will solve the problem.”

The last asbestos spike in Devine, according to TCEQ records, was in March of 2012. Two of the five samples tested just below the EPA maximum, and the other three ranged from 17.4 to 24 MFL, more than three times the amount of contamination permitted.

All water samples tested from summer 2012 to summer 2015 registered below the EPA’s maximum level of asbestos.

Despite this year's unsolved water scare, Mayor Herring, a lifelong resident of Devine, says he’s never stopped drinking the water.

“Of course, yeah, I'm standing," he said with a chuckle. "Yeah, I'm fine.”

@MichaelLocklear | mlocklear@sbgtv.com


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