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PVC Alternative: Is There a Safer Option for the Lead Pipe Crisis?

Updated: Jan 8


Abstract picture of PVC piping

Introduction

Did you know that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly one-tenth of the nation's drinking water service lines contain lead? These alarming findings led to the establishment of the EPA's Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which allocates $15 billion through the Biden Administration to replace contaminated piping. This dire need, along with the substantial fund provided to address the problem, has sparked a debate over what material should replace the damaging lead pipes.

 

The PVC Predicament


PVC and Health Risks

In April of 2023, the organization Beyond Plastics released a report detailing the perceived risks of using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic in water lines due to the leaching of chemicals that can affect human health. According to the report, "there is evidence that this may occur, and the testing necessary to prove otherwise is either inadequate or nonexistent." Making it clear that they are big proponents of replacing the lead pipes currently in place, Beyond Plastics warned, “communities that opt to replace their lead service lines with PVC plastic pipes may well be leaping from the frying pan into the fire.”

 

EPA's Response

The EPA appears to be taking such warnings seriously. As of December 2023, vinyl chloride, a prominent ingredient used to make PVC pipes, was added to the shortlist of chemicals for risk evaluation, a move that could potentially result in the banning of vinyl chloride under the federal Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). 

 

Plumbers' Plight

However, the health concern is not limited to those drinking water from PVC pipes. There is also a concern for industry professionals who work with and install this material. In addition to the inherent risks associated with breathing in PVC dust during installations, the materials used to clean and bond PVC are highly dangerous. Union Plumbers in Boston expressed these concerns back in 2021. Barry Keady, an experienced plumber, told CBS at that time, "It's a long-term problem. The chemicals go right into your liver. PVC cleaner is like airplane glue. My liver function is off. You're cutting it, using glue and cleaner. It's a long-term health hazard for plumbers."

 

Another Choice: PVC Alternative

For these reasons, both Troy and Rochester, New York have chosen not to use PVC pipes to replace the dangerous lead. Instead, they are opting for copper and cross-linked polyethylene pipes for these projects. Frank Sainato, the deputy director of public information for Troy, explained, "We only use copper because copper is tried and true. It may cost more, but public safety is always worth the extra expense."

 

Impact on the Environment


PVC Production and Ecosystems

Experts also warn that the decision on plumbing materials doesn't just impact human health but may also have a profound effect on the environment and wildlife. The production of PVC releases toxic chemicals into the surrounding air and water. Since many of these chemicals do not naturally break down, they can accumulate in the food chain and affect ecosystems over time. Chemicals such as dioxin and vinyl chloride may even be linked to global warming.


Fire Hazards

Another environmental concern is the release of these chemicals into the air and surrounding groundwater systems during a wildfire. Unlike metal materials, PVC piping can burn and melt when exposed to high heat, releasing dangerous chemicals. An example of this is found in the 2017 Northern California Tubbs fire, where benzene was found in all water mains afterward. Further testing confirmed that 84% of this benzene came from PVC. Additional compounds like vinyl chloride, styrene, tetrahydrofuran, and methylene chloride were also found. All of these compounds have all been linked with various kinds of cancer.

 

Recycling Woes

This environmental risk doesn't end when these materials are no longer in use. While alternative piping materials such as copper are easily recycled and reused, PVC is rarely recycled due to its many additives. Recycling these additives is expensive and often judge not worth the hassle by recycling professionals. Sometimes called the "least recycled plastic," less than one-quarter of 1% of PVC is recycled after use. This means that used PVC materials are disposed of in other, more environmentally dangerous ways, such as in landfills or incinerators. The dangers of plastic waste to our marine life and ocean ecosystems cannot be overstated. Plastic waste results in the release of microplastics that harm marine life, leading to the deaths of thousands of animals such as sea turtles and marine mammals each year.

 

Conclusion

The profound impact that the manufacturing, use, and disposal of PVC materials have on human health and environmental welfare deserves additional research and testing. As the United States works to correct the dangerous effects of lead piping in large parts of the country's water systems, it must ensure not to replace one evil with another. Safe alternatives, such as copper, have stood the test of time and offer viable options outside of potentially hazardous plastic compounds.

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