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Consider our Ethical Response to Emerging Pollutants, by Julie Peller, Ph.D.

A major accomplishment of the Infrastructure Law, signed by President Biden in 2021, is funding to replace faulty water service lines. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “the legislation included $15 billion for lead service line replacement and $11.7 billion in safe drinking water funds that can also be used to replace pipes.” (This was short of the $45 million requested and required.)  The agency’s goal is to replace all pipelines that contain lead, estimated at 6-10 million service lines, which includes 400,000 schools, over the next ten years. Further, there are about 240,000 water main breaks each year; an estimated $420 billion is required to repair and rebuild the US's water distribution and transmission infrastructure.

The material used in new pipelines can be metals such as ductile iron pipe, copper, stainless steel or plastic piping, or PVC (polyvinyl chloride).  One concern is that PVC is the most common material for replacement pipes since it is the lowest cost (which is usually the reason plastic is chosen). Do we know enough about PVC to use it to this extent? Both durability and safety are the main concerns with using PVC pipes. Decision makers in Prescott, AZ found out that PVC pipes cannot withstand the hard, rocky soils in their area and many have failed. The lifetime of PVC pipes is short, estimated at 20-30 years, compared to ductile iron pipes (only slightly more costly than PVC) at 60-80 years.   

Another concern of PVC and chlorinated PVC pipes (CPVC) is the leaching of hazardous compounds from the plastic into water. Purdue University Professor of Civil, Environmental and Ecological Engineering, Andrew Whelton, believes that “we don't have a very good public understanding about the chemicals that are leaching out of a lot of the plastics that we install in our infrastructure.” In contrast, ductile iron pipes with a cement lining resist corrosion and do not leach. Another essential property of these metal-based pipes is that they are recyclable; PVC pipes are not. Further, PVC is made from vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical released in the train derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, in 2023. The use of this chemical is under review by the EPA.

Will we make the right choice for our communities and children, invest in the best possible materials, or choose the cheapest option? Susan Bratton, Professor of Environmental Science at Baylor University explains “Our ethical response to emerging pollutants is negligible and delayed until they are no longer “emerging.” From an ethical standpoint, we have not developed an adequate definition of waste or the responsibilities it may entail.”

Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.   

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