Opponents of plastic pipes win battle in a long war

by Katherine Conrad, San Jose Mercury News

A coalition fighting against plastic pipes in residential plumbing
won a partial victory when the state agreed to keep its restrictions
against several types of the controversial material. But the battle
that began 25 years ago in California pitting plastic against metal
pipes is far from over.

Home builders favor plastic pipes because it is cheaper by a
few thousand dollars per house, and it’s easier to install than copper.
Opponents say the chemicals in plastic pipes pose health and
environmental risks. Roughly every three years, the state’s Housing and
Community Development Department updates the California Plumbing Code.
The Building Standards Commission was scheduled in January to accept
the findings of an environmental impact report and consider lifting the
restrictions on three kinds of plastic pipes. The pipes are currently
either banned in California or allowed only in inland areas where the
water and soil are so acidic that they cause copper pipes to leach.

Last week, the department’s staff recommended keeping the
restrictions on several kinds of plastic pipes — cross-linked
polyethylene known as PEX, polyvinyl chloride known as PVC, and
acrylonitrile butadiene styrene — but the Building Standards
Commission will consider whether to allow chlorinated polyvinyl
chloride or CPVC, in houses built in California. The amount of pipe
installed in a home ranges from 400 feet in a 1,000-square-foot
townhouse to 1,000 feet in a 2,000-square-foot house. The regulations
apply only to buildings where people sleep, such as houses and hotels.

Dick Church, executive director of the Plastic Pipe and
Fittings Association based in Chicago, said California is the only
state in the country that restricts use of the pipes. "It’s silly," he
said. "There’s no scientific basis. It won’t hurt anybody, regardless
of what the plumber’s union says. This is a nationwide feud that has
been going on for 50 years."

But the Coalition for Safe Building Materials claims that the
plastic pipes spread fire, leach hazardous chemicals into the soil and
cannot be recycled. The coalition includes the Sierra Club, Consumer Federation of California, Communities for a Better Environment and the California State Pipe Trades Council.

Coalition attorney Tom Enslow said he believes that the plastic pipe
industry is against allowing the product to be tested. "It appears they
don’t want to admit to any flaws in their product."

"Having examined numerous environmental impact reports, this
EIR doesn’t even pass the smell test," he said. "PVC is considered the
dirtiest plastic from creation to death. It’s a very dirty product to
create, it releases toxins, and when you try to dispose of it, it’s
considered a contaminant."

Janet Huston, a spokeswoman for Housing and Community Development, said
the staff was concerned about the questions raised regarding fire and
toxic fumes. "There is not significant environmental documentation to
alleviate the concerns," she said. The proposal to lift the
restrictions against CPVC is scheduled to be considered by the
department on Jan. 16.

Read a recent Press Enterprise article on the issue.