Lead-containing water pipes have caused a health disaster in Flint, but replacing them with cheaper plastic – as some cities are doing – brings hidden costs

Flint, Michigan, made headlines in 2015 when Tests revealed dangerously high lead levels in drinking water. The city had switched its water supply to the Flint River a yr earlier, and corrosive water had damaged old lead pipes, exposing 1000’s of individuals to steer contamination.

The result was a health crisis whose effects are still being felt today. And Flint was just the tip of the iceberg.

The EPA estimates that 9.2 million service lines that deliver drinking water to U.S. homes and businesses are product of lead. The federal government considers replacing these lead pipes a top priority and has A wide range of initiatives to assist, including the Infrastructure Act 2021, which 15 billion US dollars pledged over five years for the alternative of lead pipes.

The EPA is now suggests requesting removal of lead pipes within the United States inside 10 years. However, the agency has not commented on what should replace lead.

A woman holds a baby bottle with rust-colored water in it. The hearing room around her is full of people.
Jessica Owens holds up a baby bottle of water from her home in Flint, Michigan, during a U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the lead crisis in town's water supply on February 3, 2016.
AP Photo/Molly Riley

We study Water politics And Water chemistrywith a give attention to Plastics and emerging pollutants in addition to equal access to wash waterWe see concerns about a well-liked alternative material for lead pipes: plastic.

The buried lead pipes are concentrated in cities with a big proportion of low-income populations. Seven of the ten The US states with essentially the most lead pipes are the Great Lakes states and Our research shows The latest federal funds will cover lower than one-fifth of the associated fee of replacing known lead pipes on this region alone. These cities could possibly be unwittingly creating latest environmental and health risks.

The problem with lead pipes

There are No level of lead exposure is taken into account secure for the people.

In children, lead exposure can affect organs and brain development and reduced intelligence, behavioral disorders and learning problemsAdults are also in danger. Even a small amount of lead exposure can Cause kidney problems and hypertension. A Recent study It is estimated that 170 million adults within the United States were exposed to high levels of lead in early childhood.

In 1986, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to Ban on the usage of lead pipes when installing or repairing public water systems in private homes or businesses that offer drinking water.

But many communities already had lead pipes that they expected to last for a long time, and replacing them is dear. EPA estimates that replacing each lead line from the municipal water most important to a house costs a mean of $5,066.

Copper, Iron and plastic are common alternative materials for lead pipes. Plastic, specifically polyvinyl chloride or PVC, is an increasingly popular selection. Plastic often has an initial price that lower than the others.

While most pipe materials cause problems over long periods of time, there are potential hidden costs related to using plastic pipes in drinking water systems that serious questions And health concerns.

Hidden health costs from plastic

One kind of plastic, PVC, was First used in U.S. water systems in 1955 and have become widespread within the Nineteen Seventies. Other varieties of plastic pipe include cross-linked polyethylene (PEX), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC).

Scientific studies have shown that plastic pipes attract metals and release chemicals And Micro- and nanoplasticswhich is understood worsen kidney disease.

Over the last decade, Researchers have documented The Degradation of plastics and the discharge of chemicals from plastic polymers and additives in plastics and microplastics. A study from 2023 found that pipe material and age can contribute to the discharge of microplastics in drinking water.

Biofilm – the layer of microorganisms that accumulate on surfaces that come into contact with water – also can cause problems in pipes. Study 2023 showed how this biofilm can collect heavy metals reminiscent of lead, which might then slowly be released into the water over time. This accumulation is an issue with any pipe. However, some studies have reported that the discharge of organic substances from polymer-based pipes promote the expansion of biofilmsand plastics can promote the flexibility from Pathogens accumulate in pipesFurther studies are needed to evaluate whether biofilm in plastic pipes is a serious problem.

Concerns about durability

Although PVC and other plastic pipe materials have a protracted lifespan, they’ve durability problems.

A study conducted Deformation, leaks and root growth have been observed in Dutch sewer systems, where plastic pipes have been used extensively since at the very least the Nineteen Seventies. Some cities within the United States that installed plastic drinking water pipes have encountered similar problems.

Photos with examples of fire damage to water systems
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after they were destroyed by wildfires.
Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University, CC BY-ND

Prescott, Arizona, began using PVC plastic pipe within the mid-Eighties and noticed durability issues within the Nineties. In 2023, citing longevity issues and leaks, The mayor of Prescott announced a change from PVC plastic to ductile iron.

Hamilton, Ohio, began with premature failures of HDPE service pipes and water pipes after only 20 years, although the estimated lifespan of HDPE is 80 years. The city is now switching to iron and copper.

Fire can melt plastic and release toxic chemicals

Plastic can also be a fireplace hazard. Studies have shown that plastic pipes can melt at high temperatures and release harmful chemicals.

The 2023 fire that swept through Lahaina, Hawaii, damaged plastic water pipes, contributing to a drop in water pressure when Maui firefighters needed it most. Residents were then warned that plastic pipes contaminate the water supply by leaching of dangerous chemicals. Pressure loss can create a form of vacuum that sucks chemicals and bacteria into water systems.

Burnt wires and PVC pipes lie on the side of the road in Lahaina, Hawaii, following a devastating wildfire in 2023.
AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson

Heating during fires also can cause plastic to release harmful chemicals. Water tests in California communities affected by wildfires in 2017 and 2018 found that water systems with Volatile organic compounds like benzene, a carcinogen.

Protecting the general public

With billions of dollars in federal funding, communities are currently deciding whether to speculate in plastic pipes or other materials to interchange lead. This is a historic undertaking.

However, we consider that further research is required into the potential impacts of plastics to raised understand the short and long-term risks to human health and the environment. All aspects have to be considered: health, durability, longevity and fire safety. The initial price will not be all the time an indicator of the hidden costs.

image credit : theconversation.com