Safety & Health Effects of Microplastics in Piping Systems

Microplastic fragments are omnipresent in air, soil and water. A first-of-its-kind study examined individuals from eight countries and found all had microplastics inside their bodies. Researchers identified plastics including PP, PE, and PVC… all materials used widely for plastic piping. PET plastic used to make water bottles and other single-use containers was also among the top materials found. What does this mean for piping systems?

Plastic in Piping

While plastic pipes have been shown to leach chemicals into drinking water, it’s unlikely they are the primary source of microplastics flowing through most taps. However, CPVC, PE, PP, and PVC pipes represent a significant portion of plastics used in buildings, contributing to the flow of plastic waste that is the source of microplastic pollution. In 2015, discarded plastic building materials added over 12 million metric tons of plastic waste (an amount increasing every year). 

Unlike many materials, 95% of plastic becomes waste at end of life: from pipes to paint, tools to toys, and furnishings to fabrics. From there, the results are not encouraging. Some plastic building waste gets burned, becoming a new source of fossil-fuel pollution and amplifying its carbon footprint. Most just piles up in landfills.

Since it can’t biodegrade, the plastic persists there for decades, leaching chemicals into runoff and disintegrating into micro- and nano-particles due to factors such as physical abrasion, damage caused by ultraviolet light, or chemical interactions with other materials. Over time, the long polymer chains that compose these plastics begin to break down, releasing fragments into water, air, and soil.

Proven alternatives exist for the carbon-heavy, combustible, and polluting plastic materials that make buildings less safe. Reducing use of plastic pipe will help stem the flow of such material into landfills when buildings are renovated or demolished, and encourage construction with choices that are safer for people and the environment. 

Health Effects

The damage microplastics inflict on human health is still being researched. However, a study from John Hopkins University found microplastic build up can harm the immune system and disrupt other basic processes in the body. Additional research has found that microplastics release chemical additives harmful to health and reproduction.

 A study estimated humans consume 39,000 – 52,000 microplastics annually and individuals who consume the recommended amount of tap water may ingest an additional 4,000 plastic particles every year due to particles shed from plastic pipes or already present in water supplies.

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