Fire Safety – How Piping Material Plays a Role

Within commercial, residential, or industrial structures, piping material plays an instrumental role in the safety of occupants and responders in fire scenarios. Certain piping materials emit toxic fumes when burned, allow fires to spread at an elevated rate, and can contaminate drinking water.

What Threats Do Pipes Pose?

A  major fire safety risk that piping poses is the emission of chemicals that results when the material burns. The wrong kind of piping can leave life-threatening impacts on anyone who inhales the smoke it emits.

Tests have indicated that burning plastic pipes, such as PVC, emit the following gases: carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), sulphur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen chloride (HCI), hydrogen fluoride (HF), and hydrogen bromide (Hbr).

These gases pose a serious threat to the safety of building occupants. Smoke inhalation can lead to lifelong health problems such as cancer, and is especially dangerous in critical-care facilities (ie: nursing homes, hospitals) where occupants may not be able to escape quickly; leaving them more at risk to inhaling these toxic fumes. In any building, the toxic smoke presents a huge risk to first responders who may inhale them in the line of duty.

If your home and office have plastic pipes, you should be cautious about the fire hazards they pose. On top of the fact that they emit toxic smoke that can cause severe health issues like cancer when inhaled, plastic is an intumescent material that has the potential to expand “up to 35 times” its initial volume in the event of a fire, which is a major fire stopping issue as it allows fire/smoke/gas to penetrate through barriers (such as a wall) and spread.

Public safety is also threatened by the piping material within a city or municipality’s water infrastructure. As seen in the aftermath of the devastating 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, CA, the region’s drinking water became highly contaminated due to plastic underground water pipes introducing harmful, cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and methylene chloride into the water supply. As of mid-October 2019, Paradise residents still cannot drink their tap water.

Are We At Risk?

To assess the risk of piping-related fire hazards, first investigate the piping material within the home and workplace.

If they have copper pipes, there is not a cause for alarm; copper pipes do not pose a fire hazard and are actually a favored material for fire protection system because they do “not burn or support combustion.” Unlike plastic, copper has a “high melting point, and is unlikely to melt” in the event of a fire. Moreover, safety data sheets show that copper meets the criteria for safety relative to any physical, environmental, or health related hazards in fires.

You should also assess whether or not the area in which you live is prone to large-scale fire events such as wildfires. If so, it is critical you know what kind of water infrastructure your city, county, or municipality has. If the water lines are plastic, they are susceptible to melting during a fire and contaminating drinking water with toxic contaminants.

What Should We Do?

Building owners, contractors, architects, and decision makers need to make their piping decisions with a full understanding of the fire hazards that certain materials present. Individuals can help spread awareness, and we encourage Safe Piping at every level – from houses, to buildings, to underground water infrastructure.

“Codes Must Be Responsive to Current and Future Hazards,” by Jay Peters of Codes and Standards International and the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, details the safety hazards that plastic piping presents and calls for changes in building codes that reflect those dangers. Included in the White Paper below is a joint statement from the International Association of Fire Fighters and the United Association of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders and Service Techs that calls for an all-out ban on plastic piping in critical care-facilities.

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