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.

Leaching takes place when clean water is contaminated as it comes into contact with the chemicals in piping installations. The threat level of leaching is significantly based on the piping material installed. The use of plastic piping materials for residential and commercial drinking water, as well as concerns regarding the presence of substances potentially leaching into drinking water from such materials, are increasing worldwide.

Overview: Leaching Concerns

Chemical interactions between water and piping materials — typically oxidation — and the principles of osmosis mean all piping materials leach substances into water to some degree. Some materials are far safer than others, however. For example, lead pipes and fittings have emerged as a serious public health threat in homes, schools, and businesses with aging plumbing. The leaching impacts of commonly used materials such as plastic and copper are less understood. Here’s an overview based on current research:
  • Lead Leaching – Lead is an established neurotoxin and dangerous to human health; prolonged exposure can lead to a range of serious conditions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, no level of lead exposure is safe. Water crises in communities across the country show the impacts of lead contamination and explain why recent infrastructure investments seek to replace lead with safer piping materials.
  • Plastic Leaching – Research into leaching from plastic pipes has found scores of chemicals that pass into drinking water from plastic piping, fittings, and the solvents/glues used to bind them. These substances — including carcinogens such as benzene — leach from pipe walls over time, especially plumbing exposed to heat or hot water. Disinfectants used by water companies also can interact with plastic pipes, producing secondary chemicals.
  • Copper Leaching – Copper pipes leach traces of copper at levels generally regarded as safe. At low levels …

The Rise and Fall of Lead Piping​

rusty lead pipe on ground
Lead piping was used in almost every major U.S. city for many plumbing applications in 1900, including to transport drinking water. Millions of lead pipes are still in in use across the country. As demonstrated by Flint, Michigan; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Newark, New Jersey and many other communities, these pipes can present a serious threat to water quality.

Plastic Leaching into Water Systems: A Problem for Green Buildings?

plastic pipes in open ceiling
Interest in sustainably designed buildings continues to grow among building owners and facility managers. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Green Building Council, 27 percent of respondents said green projects made up over 60 percent of their work; furthermore, nearly half of respondents estimated green projects will surpass 60 percent of their work by 2021.

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