Are PVC pipes toxic? Manufacturers blast new report claiming dangers
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Are PVC pipes toxic? Manufacturers blast new report claiming dangers

May 23, 2024

A report warning cities against the use of PVC pipes in water systems sparked swift and resounding criticism from the plastics industry, its advocates and at least one leading scientific expert.

Representatives of several trade groups, including the Plastics Pipe Institute, the Vinyl Institute and Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association, claimed falsehoods and fear-mongering littered the report that a coalition of U.S. environmental advocacy groups released last month.

“There is so much wrong with it, it is hard to know where to start,” said Bruce Hollands, executive director of Uni-Bell, a national nonprofit organization that touts itself as “the authoritative source of information" on PVC pipe for water and sewer use.

Industry leaders told USA TODAY there is no credible evidence that PVC pipes, which have been used for decades, are unsafe for use in drinking water systems and that multiple studies have shown they're more environmentally friendly than metal pipes. They said the recent report was biased and "confused."

Spearheaded by the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, based at Bennington College, Vermont, the 56-page report raised concerns about the health consequences of chemicals in PVC pipesleaching chemicals into drinking water, as well as the environmental impact of their production.

It cited research that documented as many as 50 chemicals released into the water by PVC pipes and their fittings, and it called the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment in February the latest in a string of environmental disasters connected with PVC production. The train was carrying vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC and CPVC – or polyvinyl chloride and chlorinated polyvinyl chloride.

The report also criticizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allowing cities and states to use $15 billion in federal dollars from its Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to replace lead water service lines with PVC pipes. It recommends cities use copper or stainless steel for service line replacements.

Paid for by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, the report is based largely on an extensive review of research that formed the basis of its key findings and recommendations.

Beyond Plastics President Judith Enck said the group stands by its report.

“We anticipated these industry attacks,” said Enck, a former regional EPA administrator, “as we've seen the plastics and petrochemical industries attack environmental groups for alerting the public to the potential harms of their products over and over again.”

The plastics industry didn't specifically criticize earlier scientific research, but it contradicted the conclusions reached by Beyond Plastics, citing numerous other studies that counter its claims.

Chris DeArmitt, one of the world’s leading independent plastics scientists, issued his own 16-page rebuttal of the report in which he argued Beyond Plastics cherry-picked research that supported its anti-plastics view instead of examining a wider body of work.

For example, DeArmitt said, the report cites concerns about chemical leaching from PVC and CPVC pipes, but he cited other sources – including the World Health Organization – showing concentrations so low as to pose no health concerns.

"Things can leach out of pipes, but it’s all been measured and that’s what NSF 61 is," DeArmitt said, referring to the national standard for drinking water products, components and materials and ensuring minimum health effects for chemical contaminants and impurities.

The NSF stands for the National Sanitation Foundation, an independent organization authorized by the EPA to develop public health standards and certify the safety of products, including those used in drinking water systems.

Enck accused the plastics industry of cherry-picking research, too. And the Beyond Plastics report questioned the independence of the NSF, saying it receives industry funding and relies on manufacturers to self-report data for certification. It likened the process to the coal industry developing its own air pollution standards.

While manufacturers do submit product materials information, said Dave Purkiss, vice president of NSF’s Global Water Division, the organization verifies everything. He told USA TODAY that NSF conducts independent inspections of production facilities and does extensive testing at its own laboratories.

Even after a product is certified, Purkiss said, the NSF conducts unannounced, on-site audits to inspect the raw materials, review records and verify that production continues to meet all requirements.

"Our products undergo extreme scrutiny with respect to what comes out of the product and gets into drinking water," said Dick Church, executive director of the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association. “We meet basically the same standards that copper or steel have to meet through NSF. They’re testing for everything that’s in the formulation of a product ... and if that doesn’t pass, they can’t use the material in the product.”

In addition to touting the safety of PVC and other plastic pipes, Church and his peers pointed to numerous "life cycle assessments" that show plastic pipes have fewer environmental impacts and a lower carbon footprint compared with pipes made from materials like copper, stainless steel and ductile iron.

Life cycle assessments generally measure the total energy and environmental resources required, as well as total waste generated, in the production and installation of the pipes. Some studies found that, from cradle to grave, PVC pipes produced just a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions ofcopper or iron pipes.

“Look at the energy it takes to make copper, ductile iron or concrete,” said David Fink, president of the Plastics Pipe Institute. “I can’t believe all their energy is coming from wind and solar to fire up that plant and melt metal at thousands of degrees versus melting plastics at 200 degrees. They’re using more energy. They're using more water. They're heavy, so they’re using more diesel on the trucks to get it to the job site. At the end of the day, if we want to move away from plastics, we’re going to be less environmentally friendly than if we stay where we are.”

Enck criticized those findings and said the plastics industry typically funds its own life cycle analyses to support its claims of environmental friendliness. Independent studies, she said, have shown the opposite.

But DeArmitt said only 14 such analyses exist and – even when excluding the two funded by the plastics industry – the studies found that plastic pipes are greener than metal pipes.

"These life cycle assessments are based on science, and there are standards in place to prevent any skewing of the data to make one product look better than another,” said Tad Radzinski, a former environmental engineer for the EPA and current president of the Sustainable Solutions Corporation, which conducts life cycle assessments for clients, including one on PVC pipes that was paid for by Uni-Bell.

“We are an impartial entity,” Radzinski. “In fact there are a lot of times we do life cycle assessments, and companies we work for are not excited about the results, but that’s the reality where we are. We let them know there’s no guarantee.”

The East Palestine train derailment gave critics another opportunity to highlight their concerns. More than 5 tons of vinyl chloride, en route to a plant that makes plastic for PVC flooring, was released and burned. The material is a known carcinogen. The crash and fire led to a rash of health complaints from people living nearby.

Church called the Feb. 3 wreck "very concerning" but said it has more to do with the safety of rail transportation than plastics production.

"We probably do need to tighten procedures, if not specific requirements, with regards to trains and train safety," Church said. "Everybody’s got to be for train safety. We’re no different."

The Beyond Plastics report is the latest in a long series of efforts by environmental advocates to get communities and consumers to ditch plastic – from single-use grocery bags to underground water pipes.

And the billions of dollars in federal funding now available for communities to upgrade underground infrastructure makes the plastic pipe industry an especially vulnerable target, said Mike Cudahay, regulation and sustainability specialist for the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association.

“Right now it’s anywhere from $500 billion to $1 trillion to do this work,” Cudahay said. “I think that’s why there is a lot of noise coming to the surface again.”

Pipes made with plastic – including PVC, CPVC and other materials like high-density polyethylene – have outpaced metal pipes as the material of choice in community water systems, according to numerous market analyses. And they are forecast to comprise nearly 80% of the nation's water pipe inventory by 2030, according to Bluefield Research, a firm that provides data and insights on global water markets.

Several plastics industry representatives questioned whether the metal pipe industry paid Beyond Plastics to write the report.

The answer to that is no, said Enck, adding that "Beyond Plastics does not receive and has never received any funding from the metal pipe industry.” She said the report is entirely based on independent research.

"We're talking about human health here," Enck said. "It's important to ensure the facts are coming from independent scientific experts like the ones cited in our report, not the people trying to sell more plastic.”

Hollands of Uni-Bell echoed those comments – albeit from a different perspective – in his advice to consumers and communities wanting to make an informed decision.

"Examine the facts and get information from well-established, and reliable institutions," said Hollands of Uni-Bell. "Beware of organizations like Beyond Plastics with an obvious bias against PVC and plastic piping."