Plumbing & Pipes

The older your pipes, the more likely they are to contain lead, a potent neurotoxin, which can leach into your tap water.

Healthier Plumbing

  • Copper or polypropylene pipes

  • “Lead-free” joint materials, with less than 0.20 percent lead

  • “Lead-free” faucets and fixtures, with less than 0.25 percent lead

Do’s & Don’ts

The Dirty Details

In 1986, amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act mandated “lead-free” pipes and plumbing materials—although lead-free was a misnomer as the law allowed the products to contain up to 8 percent lead. In 2011, the law was again amended to define lead-free as no more than 0.25 percent lead, but the new standard didn’t take effect until 2014. Therefore, the older the pipes are in your home, the more likely they are to contain potentially harmful levels of lead. What’s more, the plastic pipes that are replacing metal pipes may contain other chemicals of concern.

Lead

The drinking water in older homes is at risk of lead contamination due to old plumbing systems. Pipes in homes built before 1930 are the most likely to contain lead, and homes built before 1980 are likely to have lead solder connecting copper pipes. Brass faucets or Copper or polypropylene pipes “Lead-free” joint materials, with less than 0.20 percent lead “Lead-free” faucets and fixtures, with less than 0.25 percent lead fittings may also contain and leach lead even though they are labeled as “lead-free.” Themore these pipes, solder and faucets are corroded by acidity, the more lead contamination of tap water will occur.

Water contaminated with lead—even at low levels—can be harmful, especially to kids and pregnant woman.

The only way to know for sure if your drinking water is contaminated with lead is to have it tested by a state-certified commercial laboratory. Contact your local water utility or your local public health department and ask for their list of recommended labs. Some communities offer free lead testing kits.

PVC Pipes

Carcinogenic vinyl chloride can leach from pipes made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, especially in pipes made before 1977. The U.S. Green Building Council says that considering the lifecycle of PVC, from manufacturing to disposal, the material is clearly more of a health hazard than other types of pipes.

Other Plastic Pipes

A type of polyethylene plastic called PEX has become a popular choice for pipes. PEX piping is flexible, durable and resistant to corrosion. But because it is somewhat permeable, pesticides, gasoline or other soil contaminants can migrate through the pipe into drinking water. Studies have also shown that PEX piping can leach MTBE, a toxic petroleum byproduct, into drinking water. A 2009 California Building Standards Commission study found that MTBE leaching from PEX pipes declines rapidly over time, but some leaching may still occur. -

Healthier Choices

Copper Pipes

Copper pipes with lead-free joint materials are the best choice for water pipes. They are long-lasting and won’t leach chemicals into your drinking water. However, copper pipes are generally more expensive, and copper’s intensive extraction and manufacturing process presents some environmental trade-offs. Also, if your water has a pH value of less than 7, you will need to install a system to balance the water’s acidity, lest it corrode the copper.

Polypropylene Pipes

Polypropylene pipes are another good choice and are less expensive than copper pipes. Polypropylene is a durable, rigid plastic with less likelihood of chemical leaching compared to PEX. Heat can be used to join polypropylene pipes, instead of chemical solvents or leaded joint materials. Polypropylene pipes can also be recycled at the end of their lifecycles.

Joint Materials and Faucets

Since 2014, pipe fittings, faucets and plumbing materials labeled as “lead-free” can contain no more than 0.25 percent lead, while joint materials such as solder and flux may not have more than 0.20 percent lead. When purchasing faucets and joint materials, contact the manufacturer to confirm that the products comply with these standards.

Water Filtration

Visit EWG’s online Water Filter Buying Guide to find a filter that meets your needs and budget, and choose a model certified for lead removal by NSF International or the Water Quality Association. Look for a product that removes more than 99 percent of lead from tap water.

References

  1. Building Green, Inc., Avoiding Toxic Chemicals in Commercial Building Projects: A Handbook of Common Hazards and How to Keep Them Out. Available at http://www2.buildinggreen.com/guidance/Avoid-Toxic-Chemicals-in-Buildings
  2. Tristan Roberts, Piping in Perspective: Selecting Pipe for Plumbing in Buildings. Building Green, Inc., 2007. Available at www2.buildinggreen.com/article/piping-perspective-selecting-pipe-plumbing-buildings
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Actions You Can Take to Reduce Lead in Drinking Water. 1993. Available at nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=20001R4V.txt
  4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Use of Lead Free Pipes, Fittings, Fixtures, Solder and Flux for Drinking Water. Available at www.epa.gov/dwstandardsregulations/use-lead-free-pipes-fittings-fixtures-solder-and-flux-drinking-water
  5. California Building Standards Commission, Draft Environmental Impact Report on Adoption of Statewide Regulations Allowing the Use of PEX Tubing. 2008. Available at www.documents.dgs.ca.gov/bsc/prpsd_chngs/documents/2007/pex_deir_5_9_08.pdf
  6. Sandra Steingraber, Update on the Environmental Impact of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) as a Building Material: Evidence From 2000-2004. Healthy Building Network, 2004. Available at healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/update-on-the-environmental-health-impacts-of-polyvinyl-chloride-pvc-as-a-building-material-evidence-from-2000-2004.pdf
  7. Keven M. Kelley et al., Release of Drinking Water Contaminants and Odor Impacts Caused by Green Building Cross-Linked Polyethylene (PEX) Plumbing Systems. Water Research, 2014. Available at www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0043135414006289

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