Environmental advocates warn against using PVC in drinking water pipes

A coalition of environmental organizations warned in a report Wednesday of potential health risks in replacing lead pipes with polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

PVC, a low-cost plastic, is commonly used as an alternative material for older metal pipes, which is particularly relevant as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Biden includes a provision to replace the U.S.’ lead service lines.

In the report, the authors note that plastic pipes can leach more contaminants into the water than unlined metal ones. The replacement process, they write, could potentially result in a so-called regrettable substitution, the term for a solution equal or worse to the problem.

The report was a joint collaboration between the organizations Beyond Plastics, Environmental Health Sciences and the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

The authors noted that independent analysis has identified about 50 toxic chemicals that PVC and chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) pipes can release into water. However, there is no government data on such chemical releases, and formulations within individual pipes and brands vary widely.

However, PVC and CPVC pipes can also release toxic chemicals into water when they degrade due to fire, such as in the case of wildfires. Burning the compounds can release hazardous amounts of carcinogens such as styrene and benzene into water.

Risks associated with manufacturing and transportation of the compounds has also been in the national spotlight after the Feb. 3 derailment of a train in East Palestine, Ohio, carrying vinyl chloride, a key component of PVC and a toxic substance in its own right.

“Vinyl chloride was designated a likely human carcinogen 49 years ago, and still we have massive amounts of it being transported around the country. The people of Ohio and Pennsylvania know the risks better than anyone since that was the chemical that was set on fire and burned throughout our region after the February 3 toxic train derailment,” Amanda Kiger, co-director of River Valley Organizing in Ohio, said in a statement.

“It is alarming that this is the chemical used to make PVC plastic pipes to deliver drinking water. We need to stop using vinyl chloride for pipes and other products.”

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