On a recent weekend, I was catching up on the news and goings-on when I came across this article published on the front page of a well-known national newspaper that caught my eye: “PVC pipes are called a health hazard.” In the back of my mind, I thought “wait, what?!”
We see numerous projects with plumbing systems that include PVC-based piping products every year. The basis of the article was a report from a coalition of U.S. environmental advocacy groups warning of the health risks of PVC plastic, urging public officials not to use the material in community water drinking pipes. The crosshairs seem to be placed on water service distribution piping and networks being replaced due to age, and where the current White House administration allocated $15 billion in 2021 through the EPA for communities to replace lead service lines. The concern referenced in the report was “health consequences from chemicals in PVC pipes leaching into the drinking water.”
The report’s contributors “criticized the EPA for issuing no guidance on which piping materials should be used for such projects.” The article also mentioned the fiery train derailment where vinyl chloride was discharged into the atmosphere and created the hazardous condition in East Palestine, Ohio, that triggered a public health emergency. So I wanted to look into this, break it down a little more and see where this may be related to the engineering and construction industry. I was also curious where the EPA as a government entity may have input on materials as the article mentioned, as well as how the main body of standards and code mandates that we as specifying engineers (and owners) trust to support the material options being considered for new or replacement projects. I see this message being easily misconstrued or expanded where plastics are being commonly used for water distribution inside new construction projects.
The EPA reference is an important one. I’m certain the EPA has a big reach — as an independent executive agency of the United States federal government, they are tasked with environmental protection measures. The EPA is a leading agency and principal authority responsible for environmental safety when it comes to pollution, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Drinking Water Act among others. The article also included a reference to NSF (originally known as the National Sanitation Foundation when founded in 1944), and piping material conformance with EPA safety regulations. The NSF was established in 1944 and is the leading independent testing and certification organization for the plastic industry, including PE, PE-RT, PEX, PP, CPVC and PVC pipes.
So, are PVC pipes a health hazard in potable water applications? They are approved for use in water service and water distribution systems by the NSF as well as within the code guidance for material applications used by industry professionals.
NSF 61 is the specific standard for drinking water system components. It sets health effects criteria for many water system products, components and materials. On its website, it further provides “NSF 61 addresses crucial aspects of drinking water system components such as whether contaminants that leach or migrate from the product/material into the drinking water are above acceptable levels in finished waters.” The issue everyone is familiar with is lead materials in our drinking water systems and the removal of lead-based products.
“Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public” is sourced from the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics and the first of the fundamental canons for professional engineers. Codes, standards, compliance and implementation of MEP system design and construction are largely based in the safety and well-being of the public and building occupants. When specifying materials for use, in this instance potable water system materials, we rely on products that are listed and approved for use in the design and installation of water service and distribution systems. Chapter 6 of the International Plumbing Code states “water service pipe (and distribution pipe) shall conform to NSF 61 and the standards listed (in the reference tables)…” which also includes ASTM, CSA and AWWA Standards. PVC and CPVC piping materials, along with ABS, ductile iron, copper, stainless steel, PEX, polypropylene and galvanized piping are also provided in the table as approved materials.
So, are PVC pipes a health hazard in potable water applications? They are approved for use in water service and water distribution systems by the NSF as well as within the code guidance for material applications used by industry professionals. The train derailment that caused a fire and subsequent release of toxic chemicals into the air, including vinyl chloride, made people rightfully question air and water quality due to this unfortunate accident. This however is not the same situation as water being distributed in plastic piping systems. I do see the correlation as to why code doesn’t allow PVC or nonrated materials to be installed in a mechanical plenum environment — in the event of a fire, the fumes can be toxic. We are fortunate to have options for piping materials and installation budgets can provide for various piping materials to be considered. As designers, we avoid dead ends where proper disinfection may not occur or stagnation in the system is a concern. When it comes to material selection and piping options, we have institutions like NSF which started over 75 years ago with a global mission to protect and improve public health. Its team includes microbiologists, toxicologists, chemists, engineers and environmental and public health officials. I have confidence in their guidance and recommendations as material technologies and awareness continue to expand.