Safety Concerns​

Changing products and emerging health and safety issues make designing piping systems a continuing challenge. Here are some key issues that should inform design and construction of piping systems, as well as summaries of recent news and research.

During structure fires and wildfires, piping impacts the safety of buildings and communities. Improperly installed pipe can cause firestop failures, allowing flames and smoke to spread through walls and floors. Combustible materials such as PVC and PEX fuel higher fire temperatures and toxic smoke that can turn serious fires into deadly ones for occupants and first responders. After fires, benzene from melted plastic pipe can poison drinking water for entire communities.

Overview: Fire Safety Concerns​

Research by fire-safety industry and testing laboratories have found that over the past several decades, many types of buildings have become more susceptible to fire damage. Plastic pipes, foam, fabrics, and insulation all represent significant sources of combustible, petroleum-based materials that increase fire risk. Key issues from ongoing work in the building and construction industry include:
  • Toxic Smoke: Testing shows that plastic pipes emit harmful gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen bromide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxide, and sulphur dioxide, among others, when they burn. Even at low levels, such gases can overwhelm building occupants and the first responders who come to fight the fire.
  • Firestopping: Homes, schools, and workplaces with plastic pipes should be designed to mitigate increased risks of direct structural failures. Plastic is an intumescent material that can expand “up to 35 times” its initial volume in the event of a fire, according to plumbing and firestopping experts at HoldRite. Designing firestops to resist such expansion requires significant expertise, which is often not well understood by either mechanical contractors or even building inspectors. Failed firestops will allow fire, smoke, and gases to penetrate through walls and floors.
  • Chemical Releases: Burned and melting pipes can also threaten the safety of communities’ water infrastructure. The Camp Fire in Paradise, CA, damaged plastic water supply and distribution pipes, introducing benzene and methylene chloride into water supplies that subsequently became highly contaminated. Until the town’s piping infrastructure could be replaced, Paradise residents had no access to safe tap water.

Building Materials Matter: Firefighters Burdened by Facility Infrastructure

beakers full of chemicals
The leading cause of occupational deaths for firefighters is cancer, killing two out of three firefighters who die in the line of duty, according to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Firefighters are increasingly being exposed to a “potent cocktail of carcinogens,” according to Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn, an advocate for firefighter health and safety who has lost over 200 colleagues to cancer.

Why would Congress add more dangers to firefighting?

two fire fighters tackling a raging fire in the background
Among the many things firefighters learn in the field is that plastic burns hot and fast. It is a combustible material and releases toxic smoke and gases when burned. When fighting fires, we face major health risks due to inhaling these toxic fumes. In large part, because it can make our jobs harder and more dangerous in the event of a fire, cities like New York and San Francisco actually prohibit the use of plastic piping in buildings with higher fire risk, like what we find in many high-rise apartment complexes.

Related Articles

Wildfires Threaten to Contaminate Water​

Recent research illustrates the relationship between piping systems, wildfires, and contaminated drinking water. One key finding: plastic piping materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and polybutylene (PB) were present in distribution networks affected by contamination… more