Investigating the Safety of Vinyl Chloride in PVC Pipes for Drinking Water: What You Need to Know

Last Updated On July 14, 2024

Updated on March 17, 2023

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safety of vinyl chloride in pvc pipes

You’ve probably been wondering or possibly even worried about the safety of the PVC pipes in your home given all the recent talk around vinyl chloride. Particularly, many homeowners have questions about the PVC pipes that carry their family’s drinking water. 

Many homeowners have expressed concerns about the dangers of vinyl chloride because of the news regarding the train accident in Ohio. A recent lawsuit alleges that approximately 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride were released. This poses a serious risk and legitimate threat to those in the vicinity. And so it follows…

If vinyl chloride is dangerous, and used in the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes for the plumbing in your home, do you have anything to worry about?

It’s an important and understandable concern, especially if your plumbing pipes rely on this type of material.

Over the next 10 years, utility companies in the United States will spend 35% of their drinking water distribution budgets on plastic piping systems. This means 80% of the country’s water pipe inventory will consist of plastic, mostly PVC, by 2030.

This is good in terms of replacing lead pipes. But does the use of PVC present a different health challenge?

In this article, we’ll focus on the potential risks associated with using materials made of PVC for plumbing such as pipes and fittings. 

This article then explores the use of PVC in modern society and what this means for your family. We conclude with some things you can do to assess these concerns in your own home.

What's In This Guide?

      In short, this article will educate you on any potential health hazards posed by vinyl chloride, PVC, and your drinking water so you can make educated decisions for your household.

      We interviewed a distinguished service professor of chemical engineering to speak to these questions, and you’ll hear from him shortly. 

      We start by answering the question, “What is vinyl chloride and its relationship to PVC?” 

      What is Vinyl Chloride?

      Vinyl Chloride (VC), also known as vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), is a manufactured chemical compound. It is a colorless gas with a mild sweet odor and is highly flammable. It is usually stored and transported under pressure as a liquid.

      VCM is a dangerous chemical that poses many serious health risks. Humans are primarily exposed through inhaling the gas, where It is quickly absorbed through the lungs. 

      Vinyl chloride has been linked to an increased risk for various cancers. The EPA classifies vinyl chloride as a Group A carcinogen, signifying it can induce cancer in humans. It is also associated with other serious health risks.

      Because of the high risks associated with this chemical, you should heed all warnings and directions from health and other government officials when there is a risk of exposure.

      While vinyl chloride is a dangerous chemical, it is also a necessary component for manufacturing polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In fact, 99% of all vinyl chloride is used for the manufacturing of PVC pipes. We will discuss (PVC) further in the next section.

      Chloride is also an important additive in PVC pipes and fittings. Chloride boosts the sturdiness, toughness, and rust-proofing of PVC pipes and fittings. This final product is known as CPVC.

      Chloride also acts as a lubricant during the installation of the pipe or fitting by allowing it to slide easily into place without damaging the surface.

      Understanding Vinyl Chloride in PVC Pipes

      We’re going to focus on PVC pipes in this article, but it’s important to note that this material is literally everywhere. Here is some general information on the uses of (PVC).

      PVC is a raw material used for the manufacturing of thousands of products found all around us. From vinyl siding and shutters to electronics and medical devices, PVC is part of our everyday lives. It’s tough to avoid.

      It is also used for many building materials including siding, windows, doors, flooring, and pipes. 

      PVC pipes are of course widely used for plumbing, as they are strong, durable, resistant to corrosion, and relatively inexpensive. You are probably familiar with the white plastic pipes used for wastewater. If you look under your sink, you will likely see this material in the white P-trap pipe connection. 

      PVC pipes work well for wastewater, as it keeps costs down and provides a stable and durable product for our homes. And as most of us don’t have experience working with copper or cast iron pipes, this material makes for great “do-it-yourself” (DYI) plumbing projects. 

      So, using PVC for wastewater pipes is a great alternative when compared to other materials available today.

      This leads us to the most important question and the focus of the rest of this article. What if PVC pipes are used for water supply lines to deliver drinking water?

      As a homeowner with PVC pipes for your potable (drinking water): Do you have anything to worry about?

      Ask Dr. Beckman: Are PVC Pipes Safe for Drinking Water?

      There is a lot of information about this topic online, and even some misinformation on otherwise credible websites. 

      We wanted to make sure we were getting accurate information on the safety of vinyl chloride, so we posed this question to Dr. Eric Beckman, a Distinguished Service Professor of chemical engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. 

      Here is what Dr. Beckman had to say regarding the safety of PVC pipes when used for transporting drinking water.

      Q: “Is it generally safe to drink water in my home where potable PVC/CVPC pipes are in use?”

      A: “Yes, it is generally considered safe to drink water from PVC pipes that were made after 1977. As such, it may be advised to replace any really old potable PVC pipes, but otherwise, you need not worry about the presence of vinyl chloride from PVC alone.” 

      There is some nuance to the presence and levels of vinyl chloride that he also touched on.

      Dr. Beckman also explained that no pipe is without some level of risk, albeit small. 

      “Researchers have indeed found very low levels of vinyl chloride present in PVC but they also found very low levels of vinyl chloride present when they exposed copper piping to water as well. 

      Some vinyl chloride will leach from PVC pipe but some will also form from reactions of the chlorine in water with other organics. This explains why it showed up in copper pipes.

      The use of chlorinated tap water means that there will be chlorinated byproducts generated in our drinking water at various levels, whatever the pipe we use.” 

      Investigating PVC Pipe Safety

      A primary concern with PVC pipes is the potential for vinyl chloride to be released into the water. Vinyl chloride can escape from some kinds of plastic and has been associated with health problems when in considerable concentrations for extended periods. 

      It’s important to keep in mind that not all (PVC) is the same. There are different types of (PVC) material manufactured depending on the products it’s used in.

      As there are different types of (PVC), it is also important to check that the products being used have the proper certification. 

      NSF International provides certification for various materials used for plumbing. You can find this important label on the pipes or the packaging. The two codes to look for are NSF-61 or NSF-PW. 

      Heat can be an issue with PVC pipes, some plumbers suggest using copper pipes for your hot water supply lines and PVC pipes for the cold water lines. 

      Incidentally, Dr. Beckman strongly advised to never burn any old PVC pipes, as this can release dangerous levels of vinyl chloride.

      When properly manufactured and installed according to code requirements, PVC pipes pose little risk of releasing dangerous levels of vinyl chloride into your home’s drinking water supply. 

      Key Takeaway: PVC pipes are strong and resistant to corrosion, and pose little health risks even when used for drinking water. Proper materials and installation are essential, and regular testing of drinking water should also take place if groundwater contamination is suspected.

      PVC Pipes Don’t Pose a Health Risk, but Contaminated Groundwater Can

      Just because your PVC pipes are safe to use doesn’t mean your water shouldn’t be tested. The EPA recommends testing your home’s drinking water regularly if you suspect potential contamination, or simply want peace of mind. 

      A simple at-home test kit can help identify any potential issues, allowing you to nip them in the bud. A reliable test kit can identify potential health risks from consuming contaminated tap water due to groundwater issues or even faulty plumbing components.

      Water testing is done automatically on public (city) water, but you’ll need to do this yourself if using a well. However, water testing is not required for those on well water.

      Roughly 43 million or 15% of the U.S. population are on private wells, and not required to test their water according to the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act. This means the risk of contaminated drinking water is a real concern and requires awareness, but not from vinyl chloride in PVC.

      FAQ: Public water systems regularly test for water safety. If you have a private well, a local private laboratory can test for water safety. If vinyl chloride is detected in your water, you should contact your local or state health department. 

      Testing your Home’s Drinking Water

      To ensure the safety of your drinking water, testing it with an approved home water testing kit is often recommended. These kits typically come with bottles and special reagents that allow you to measure the pH level, chlorine levels, lead content, and other contaminants in your tap water. 

      Depending on what’s being tested for, some kits may also require additional materials such as filter paper or distilled water.

      However, if you’re concerned about something more specific such as bacteria or viruses, it’s best to contact a professional laboratory for further testing and analysis. 

      For other contaminants, such as bacteria or viruses, it’s advisable to seek the services of a specialized laboratory.

      Additionally, many cities have regulations for public drinking water systems that provide insight into what treatments are necessary (if any) to keep it safe if you are on a well. 

      The big takeaway here is this. There are other potentially harmful elements in your water likely to be of greater concern than vinyl chloride. It’s a good plan to test your water if you haven’t done so in a while.

      Finally, if you still have concerns or questions about the age of your PVC pipes then hiring an independent contractor who specializes in plumbing inspection might be worth considering.

      They will be able to perform more detailed tests than what would normally be available through standard home-testing kits. 

      This may provide insight into any potential risks associated with using certain kinds of pipes or fixtures within your own house’s infrastructure.

      Key Takeaway: For homeowners anxious about the security of their drinking water, it’s wise to take proactive measures and have it tested. This is the best way to assess the presence of anything that poses an actual risk to you or your family.

      Conclusion on the Safety of PVC Pipes and Vinyl Chloride

      The concerns about vinyl chloride as a toxic gas are justified, particularly when there is a massive spill, as vinyl chloride is a very dangerous chemical. But when contained within finished PVC pipes, their use can be considered safe for your potable water supply.  

      As Dr. Beckman said in another interview about vinyl chloride, “once vinyl chloride is turned into PVC, it’s fine. It’s the best material for holding chlorinated water.” You can watch an additional full interview with him here

      Armed with this information, you can now make an informed decision about (PVC) water pipes…and hopefully sleep better at night. 

      If you still have concerns you can always have your water tested, but the evidence strongly suggests (PVC) pipes are safe for your drinking water.

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