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Yet another reason to filter your drinking water
By Lady Wa Wa
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From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, numerous reports documented the health dangers of lead pipes. Although not until the 1920s, many U.S. cities eventually banned or restricted the use of lead pipes for water distribution. Meanwhile, efforts by the Lead Industries Association, which formed in 1928, encouraged cities and homeowners to continue installing lead pipes, extolling lead’s virtues over iron pipe (malleability and increased system longevity).
A century later, consumers question the safety of current popular pipe materials including cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) flexible piping used by a growing number of green homebuilders. Touted for economy and easy installation, whispers of concern have dogged the green home industry. Do chemicals leach into drinking water when stagnant in the pipe or when it's used for hot water applications?
Consider piping as a vessel. We wouldn’t drink from a lead cup, would we?
When the U.S. Pure Food and Drugs Act passed in 1906, it was 100 years behind public outcries for government oversight of manufacturing. Oddly, the law had no pre-market approval system for food ingredients or drugs. The government could act only after products were on the market.
Before the law, the general attitude was for consumers to be responsible for awareness of potential contaminants. A 1906 USDA Bureau of Chemistry bulletin instructed housewives how to discern if the milk, cereal or canned beans they purchased contained harmful adulterants.
The bulletin strongly defended manufacturers, stating it would not be in their interest to shorten the lives of their customers nor impair their appetites by knowingly adding poisons. Several more decades passed before ingredient-listing was required, delayed because manufacturers feared scaring off customers or giving away secret recipes, according to the FDA.
Americans are again calling for more information about the products they put on or in their bodies. Again, regulation lags for consumer information about materials used to store or otherwise hold food and beverages. It can take decades from the time concerns about harmful ingredients arise until any government actions are taken to remove carcinogenic or toxic-containing products from the market. In some cases, there is simply no regulation of contaminants, such as is the case for bottled water sold in the United States.
How many years did we drink soda from plastic bottles containing Bisphenol-A (BPA) before we realized that once in our system, the synthetic chemical compound emulates estrogen? To learn more about bottled water, BPA and water filters, see this 2013 Highwater Marks blog.
First developed in 1891, BPA began appearing in plastic products worldwide in the 1950s. For 60 years, BPA has been used without regulation establishing its safety. The Toxic Substances Control Act passed in 1976, but labeled BPA a "grandfather" chemical, meaning it was never evaluated and was presumed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to research by consumer law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman, PC. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Medical Journal cite numerous health problems associated with BPA use.
The latest “best” piping material
So, is it any surprise that pipe commonly used to transport drinking water into our homes may also leach toxins into that water – and we don’t have to be made aware of it? Under scrutiny recently is PEX potable water pipe.
PEX has several advantages over metal pipe (copper, iron, lead) or rigid plastic pipe (PVC, CPVC, ABS) systems. It is flexible, resistant to scale and chlorine, doesn't corrode or develop pinholes, is faster to install than metal or rigid plastic, and has fewer connections and fittings, according to PEXinfo.com.
Europeans began using PEX around 1970; it was introduced in the United States in 1980. PEX use has been increasing ever since, replacing copper pipe in many applications, especially for hot water.
Several California groups blocked adoption of PEX for a decade for concerns about toxins getting into the water, either from chemicals outside or inside the pipes such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and tertiary butyl alcohol. California eventually permitted PEX use in all occupancies. An environmental impact report and subsequent studies determined there were no causes for concerns about public health from PEX piping use.
PEX pipe studies
A 2002 Regional Food Control Authority report, “Volatile organic components migrating from plastic pipes (HDPE, PEX and PVC) into drinking water,” by a research team in Norway indicates VOC migrated in significant amounts into the test water from PEX pipes. The full report is available for purchase online.
A 2014 study by University of South Alabama graduate student Matt Connell presented new drinking water impact results regarding plastic pipes in green buildings. At an American Water Works Association conference, Connell discussed the degree chemicals leach from popular plastic plumbing pipes. Also attending, environmental engineering professor Andrew Whelton described drinking water odor and chemical leaching results for six brands of PEX pipe. Their downloadable presentation is available here.
Following a 28-day study on water quality, including taste and odor and chemical leaching, the researchers concluded that PEX pipes’ test results are highly variable among manufacturers.
“There were wide variations between the magnitude of chemicals released by PEX pipes. One PEX pipe significantly altered drinking water quality while the other did not,” their report states.
Connell and Whelton said little information is available for plastic pipe sold in the United States. “To aid homeowners, builders, and water professionals in their desire to select plumbing pipe that ensures safe and aesthetically pleasing drinking water, more data are needed,” they reported.
“There is a bigger concern in the weeks after installation,” concluded Hilary Ohm, owner of Highwater Filters, after studying the researchers’ reports. “Over time, the dangers are minimal. However, flushing water that has been standing for a period of time and using a filter are the best ways to protect consumers from any harm.”
PEX pipe? There is a filter for that
History indicates consumers would be wise to research piping materials instead of relying on industry professionals or the government for safety and health information. As an added measure, install a water filter and test your water.
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Environmental Protection Agency strongly encourages people to learn more about their drinking water, and to support local efforts to protect the supply of safe drinking water and upgrade the community water system. EPA requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver an annual consumer confidence report, sometimes called a water quality report, to their customers by July 1 of each year. Homeowners with private wells are advised to test their water at least annually or more often if problems are suspected due to odor or nearby activities (fracking, mining, agricultural, etc.)