Healthiest Option for Pipes: Chemical and Metal Leaching

This Post will Look at Healthy Non-Toxic Pipe Options: PEX, Copper, PP, ABS

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1. PEX

Do Polyethylene (PE or PEX) Pipes Leach Chemicals?

Polyethylene (PEX) is becoming a more popular option. It will leach small amounts of VOCs for some years. Different brands cause different odors and leach different chemicals - this has not been thoroughly researched yet.

Precautions you can take are to avoid drinking warm water from the tap and filter your drinking and cooking water with RO/carbon or distillation to remove the contaminants.

The usual fittings are brass contain some lead, plastic PPSU fittings are preferred. Errors in the fitting install can lead to leaks.

When running lines to a tiny house use PEX instead of a garden hose or RV hose (but it cannot take UV exposure, so it has to be encapsulated). RV hoses are made of PVC.

PEX might not allowed by all local building codes, but it is the dominant plumbing system right now in North America.

PEX Used in Radiant Floors

PEX tubing is also the tubing of choice for radiant floor heating. Radiant Floors are a great heating option, as ducts can pose problems for those sensitive to mould and dust. I prefer electric underfloor heating as I have seen PEX floor heating spring a leak.

With PEX make sure to select the right diameter for your application.

2. Copper

Are Copper Pipes Healthy and Safe?

Copper can be considered for those extremely sensitive to plastics. However, there are also health risks associated with it. I personally am more concerned with metals in my drinking water than chemicals, as metal is a more problematic underlying toxin.

Copper can be filtered from drinking water with a reverse osmosis system.

For people very concerned about mould, they sometimes run their water lines inside the house. In this case you would use copper for aesthetic reasons.

Copper is more expensive than PEX (on materials and install), and more prone to bursting if it freezes. It also can have pinhole leaks.

Pipe solder is made from tin-antimony or tin-silver in the US. But if a less developed or regulated part of the world, make sure that it is lead-free.

Most of the fittings are copper but some are brass which contain lead. Even "lead-free" allows for a small amount of lead. It is in theory possible to have 100% lead-free brass fittings but I have not seen any for copper yet.

Type L is thicker (made for underground, basements where there could be abrasion or corrosion) than type M.

3. Polypropelene

Polypropylene Pipes as an Alternative to Copper and PEX

Polypropylene pipes are not as common as the other types, it is harder to find a plumber and you do need to check with what your codes allow.

But PP pipes should have less leaching than PEX according to the EWG. They also avoid toxic glues at the joints since they are sealed with heat. Although it's promoted by EWG it's not yet widely used or accessible for many people.

3. PVC and ABS

Are PVC or ABS Pipes Safe? (Outgoing Pipes)

Either one can be used on outgoing drain pipes. Your codes may require one or the other. Those severely sensitive may prefer ABS plastic.

Make sure that when glue is used at junctures in the pipes it is done outdoors or while the house can be totally aired out. Make sure your contractors are aware of the toxicity of the glue and to be extra careful with spills and clean-up. The glues cure very quickly, however. So they should be tolerable very soon.

Where plumbing meets the wall, it should be sealed with non-toxic caulking.


CPVC used to be one of the three main plumbing types for incoming water lines (along with PEX and copper), but it's more uncommon now. It becomes brittle and prone to breakage with time. Folks have moved away from PVC for incoming water. If you have this in your house take caution in areas where it can be bumped as it can break.

Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist with 5 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.

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William Braylen said...


Mari said...

I don't agree with the copper being toxic. First of all most people are deficient in copper. Secondly, scientists elsewhere have come to the opposite conclusion – that copper prevents rather than promotes Alzheimer's. Commenting on the new study, Christopher Exley, professor in Bioinorganic Chemistry at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, was quoted in news reports suggesting that the amount of copper the Rochester researchers described as being harmful is actually an average, normal amount. In February of 2013, Dr. Exley and his team published a study in which they found what they claimed is "unequivocal evidence that under conditions which are approximately similar to those found in the brain, copper can only protect against beta amyloid forming" and that it is "highly unlikely" that copper is directly involved in forming the plaques characteristic of Alzheimer's.

Unknown said...

Copper can be toxic over time if you get too much of it. Especially if you are a woman with a copper IUD. Copper is convenient and can work well but getting your copper levels checked on a regular basis should be routine if you have copper piping. It can drive down zinc levels if copper is too high. Taking zinc can actually help keep copper levels more balanced in that situation.

Mark Ohe said...

I don't understand how a blog titled, "My Chemical Free House" could possibly promoted plastic drinking water pipes. 100% of the materials used in these pipes are chemicals.

Copper, although it too has concerns, has been used safely for 100s of years and is of course a material found in the natural world. My feeling is that it is only the solder used to join the pipes that may be problematic. Obviously lead free solder is the best choice here.

WisdomKeepers said...

As has been pointed out high acidic water causes copper to leach into your drinking water so copper is not benign either

anon said...

All brass has lead content. Most or all connectors for copper pipes are brass. All the fittings and fixtures are brass. Most drains are brass with various color coatings. It can leach into the water (the lead). It is crazy that they allow this but they do. Any lead in the water system is too much. So anywhere the pipes join to a joint, water spigot, etc you will see brass. I thought copper was much safer and now I don't know what to do. Maybe get a well and use a bucket. Stainless steel seems like a good idea but that doesn't exist in plumbing.

Corinne said...

Thank you, I will update.

Corinne said...

Both have pros and cons, what is natural is not always the best and people will want a choice between those two. I choose PEX.

postmodern redneck said...

I have over 30 years experience as a remodeling contractor, and my wife and I have been living with her chemical issues since 2003. "Most or all" fittings (elbows, couplings, tees) for copper pipe are NOT brass, they are copper. Brass is mostly used when there is a need to transition to a fixture or appliance. As far as solder, lead solder was banned by building codes back in the 1980s. There is still a lot of it in older houses, but it is not in use today. The first replacement for it was a tin-antimony solder, but it was hard to work with (took a higher temperature to solder with it). I switched to a silver-solder based product as soon as I found it--more expensive, but a lot easier to work with and less prone to failure. In recent years I have used PEX, but its primary advantages are not being chemical-free; it is less expensive, and goes together faster because it requires fewer fittings--it is somewhat flexible, and mostly only needs fittings at the end of a run instead of a coupling every 10 feet and an elbow at every change of direction (PEX also has slightly better water flow because of avoiding all those hard right-angle bends). As far as a well and bucket, any well shallow enough to use a bucket on will be polluted from surface runoff containing fertilizers, pesticides, and whatever else somebody spilled on the ground.

Corinne said...

Thank you. The statement to not use lead solder came from the book Prescriptions for a Healthy Home. I assume this is because it is not banned in all parts of the world. While this blog has a main focus on the US and Canada, it is read by people all over the world. I have updated those parts. Thank you for pointing them out.

Lane said...

The EWG recommends copper with lead free joint material or polypropylene, not PEX.

Corinne Segura said...

thanks, I added polypropylene, it's not common but could be a better choice.

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