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I-Team: Plumbers Say PVC Pipe Is Long-Term Health Hazard

Originally published 6/7/21

BOSTON (CBS) - Union plumbers say it's not just the dust from cutting PVC pipe that makes installing it so dangerous. Joe King is a plumbing instructor for the union. He tells the I-Team, "It's the whole joining process, it's the glue, it's the cleaner. You can smell how strong and potent it is. There isn't one of these chemicals that says it's safe for you."

In fact, the labels on the solvent cans clearly warn about the risk of exposure, telling users, "do not breathe vapors," "known lung irritant," and "suspected of causing cancer."

Barry Keady spent years working as a plumber and is now worried about his recent medical tests that show abnormalities in his liver. "It's a long-term problem," Keady said. "The chemicals go right in to your liver. PVC cleaner is like airplane glue. My liver function is off. You're cutting it, using glue and cleaner. It's a long-term health hazard for plumbers."

Despite the plumbers union raising health concerns about the product, the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters removed restrictions on the use of the plastic pipe. Last month it changed the state code to allow developers to use PVC in taller buildings and on non-residential floors.

Joe King tells WBZ, '"You assume someone is looking out for us. Now we're going to make a code change and use PVC in every building. There isn't anyone who says 'I'm worried about the person putting in the PVC pipe.' They're worried about their bottom-line which is money."

And it isn't just the plumbers union that is sounding the alarm on PVC. The EPA calls the toxic chemical vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC, a known human carcinogen and the center for environmental health says there's no way to safely manufacture, use or dispose of PVC products.

UMass Lowell Professor Michael Ellenbecker says the health effects are well to be worried about.

At the Toxic Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell, researchers work on developing safer alternatives to toxic chemicals and tell the I-Team the plumbing industry already has safer alternatives. Cast iron an copper pipe have been used for hundreds of years.

Professor Ellenbecker says, "We can't wait 30 years to see if this is a real problem so in my judgment the lifetime risk of using iron pipe is much less than PVC."

But the plastic pipe and fittings association says PVC products have been used for 50 plus years and are "safe, non-corrosive an economical."

In the end the plumbers union says it all comes down to money.

For Joe King, it is not a good trade off. "They say it's cheaper to install," King said. "What's cheaper my cancer sickness or this piece of pipe in the long run?"

The I-Team reached out to the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters, but they did not respond to our request for comment.

Firefighters also have concerns about the growing use of PVC claiming the fumes from the melted pipes are toxic and a health risk.

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