This post will look at non-toxic pipe options for the home: PEX, Copper, PP, PVC and ABS.
Houses built after the year 2000 have plastic pipes. Houses built before the 70s (or so) often had galvanized pipes. After about 20 years the galvanizing corrodes and you can end up with a rusty odor and taste (which can taste a bit like mold).
In new builds, PEX in the norm for incoming pipes, but you can go with copper if you choose to. We will review both options since both have pros and cons.
Outgoing pipes as well as vents are usually ABS or PVC which we will go over.
This post was reviewed by Andrew Miles, Master Plumber, 30+ years licensed plumber out of NYC.
This post contains affiliate links on products I recommend. Upon purchase, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Do Polyethylene (PE or PEX) Pipes Leach Chemicals?
Polyethylene (PEX) has become the most popular option for new homes in North America.
PEX does leach small amounts of VOCs.
Different brands cause different odors and leach different chemicals. The studies have not identified the brands by name. But they found variations even within each brand.
There is a significant drop in leaching from most brands after 30 days. The first year is where I would be most concerned about filtering the water really well.
The leaching does go down with time, but I have not seen data on when the antioxidant chemicals would stop leaching.
Are PEX Pipes BPA Free?
Yes, HDPE, the plastic used to make PEX pipes, is free of bisphenol including bisphenol A (BPA), and substitutes like BPS. (Source)
The usual fittings are brass which (almost always) contains some lead, plastic PPSU fittings are preferred, if possible. Errors in the fitting install can lead to leaks.
There is some initial research into metals that come from the source water accumulating in PEX pipes. In other plastic pipes that have been studied, metals have accumulated and can be released later (source).
Reduce Exposure to Chemicals Leaching from PEX
To reduce ingesting these chemicals:
- Avoid drinking water from the tap for the first 30 days after installation
- Avoid drinking warm water from the tap
- Flush the taps before use
- Filter your drinking and cooking water with reverse osmosis/carbon or distillation to remove the contaminants.
PEX might not be allowed by all local building codes, but it is the dominant plumbing system right now in North America.
Look for PEX that meets NSF/ANSI 61 standard – that does set levels on the chemicals that leach from the pipes.
PEX in Tiny Houses
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 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 mold and dust.
While electric heating can also be used under the floors, hydronic systems can be done well. If you take great care during the installation it’s highly unlikely you will have leaks. I have seen it happen when someone nailed something through after the fact, without thinking about where the lines were.
With PEX make sure to select the right diameter for your application.
Are Copper Pipes Healthy and Safe?
Copper pipes 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.
It’s also longer lasting. The chemical leaching in PEX will go down over time while copper will continue to leach. Personally, I’m biased because many of my own health problems were caused by copper pipes. I would choose PEX over copper every time.
Copper can be filtered from point of use drinking water with a reverse osmosis system (not whole house RO which can cause more leaching of copper).
Copper is more expensive than PEX (on both 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 you are in a less developed or less 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 possible to have 100% lead-free brass fittings, though they are harder to find.
Type L is thicker (made for underground, basements where there could be abrasion or corrosion) than type M.
Polypropylene Pipes as an Alternative to Copper and PEX
Polypropylene pipes are not as common as the other types, it is harder (maybe impossible) 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 allow you to avoid toxic glues at the joints since they are sealed with heat.
Although it’s promoted by EWG it’s not widely used or accessible for most people. In fact, it’s so hard to find that I would not have put it on the list other than to for thoroughness and because so many people ask after seeing the EWG article that makes it sound common.
4. 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. Though some people who are extremely chemically sensitive put aluminum foil tape over the glued seams to block the offgassing.
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 cPVC for incoming water. If you have this in your house take caution in areas where it can be bumped as it can break.
cPVC pipes also contain metal heat stabilizers and release microgram amounts of heavy metals (source).
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
This post was reviewed by Andrew Miles, Master Plumber, 30+ years licensed plumber out of NYC.
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Shower heads and some other places in plumbing require PTFE plumber’s tape for threaded pipes. Do you think think this is probably fine, or is there any good alternative?
Hi! Great summary. but….. isn’t PEX, PVC, etc types of plastics? My concern is microplastics. Research indicates there is so much of it in water, soil, food, etc that it is even found in infants! I see gardener sites promoting irrigation pipes (often PVC) for making “hoop houses” and watering lines for drip irrigation. Of course, PEX wouldn’t work there because it breaks down from UV light (sunlight). I can’t find information from a vetted research/study to either confirm or deny PEX or PVC shedding microplastics, but I also am concerned about the sun in outdoor applications causing faster deterioration (and chemical pollution) concerning. . Can you address the microplastic concern related to home plumbing? Or irrigation? I would like to find a way to eliminate both microplastics and chemical toxins as much as possible and I am trying to find alternatives.
I, Norm, was also concerned about microplastics chipping from piping/tanks and look forward to hearing something from Corinne on this. What I do know from extensive personal research is that there are two types- primary and secondary microplastics; primary is cosmetic (like microbeads) and secondary results from breakdown of larger plastics (water bottles, etc.). Personally I think there is probably little likelihood of microplastics shedding from pex if its formed sturdily with no nicks, scratches, and if its indoors out of sunlight/heat. I also researched typical water velocity through pipes- about 5 feet a second or less. Could be harsh enough for friction to take it off… but once again probably not likely. Still, even if you were to (and could) pipe a house with wood its not foolproof. You’re always gonna drink a bit of what the water was in. Pick your poison here, the way I see it.
Yes I agree. I would also like to know.
It’s annoying to have a great under sink filter and then convey that water to your faucet with something that could leach chemicals – or copper. Polypropylene seems hard to find. there’s WECO 3/8″ Polypropylene Water Filtration Tubing – 10 ft (White) on Amazon but I’m not confident this is really polypropylene…. what does one do. is there a faucet filter for a dedicated drinking water faucet that would remove pex chemicals and or copper?
Robert Haverlock says
In 1986, amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act mandated “lead-free” pipes and plumbing materials—although lead-free was a misnomer as the law allowed the products to contain up to 8 percent lead. In 2011, the law was again amended to define lead-free as no more than 0.25 percent lead, but the new standard didn’t take effect until 2014. Therefore, the older the pipes are in your home, the more likely they are to contain potentially harmful levels of lead. What’s more, the plastic pipes that are replacing metal pipes may contain other chemicals of concern.! Just saying
You mentioned using RO to filter out chemicals potentially leached by PEX. So from RO system to RO tap, what is a safe tubing option? I see you mentioned Polypropylene, but given it is not readily available, is there an alternative to it and PEX? It looks like LLDPE is common for RO and refrigerator drinking water. Both PEX and LLDPE are polyethylene though. Is it the cross linked process in PEX causing the leaching? Or in general is polyethylene the problem?
I’m building a small house now – we used radiant heating underfloor. I’m looking for bathroom/kitchen fittings, such as facuets, showerhead, etc. I love the look of unfinished brass or copper but confused about the safest material to go with. Any other material or brand recommendations?
I haven’t seen any mention of the fact that copper is naturally antibacterial. There are certain types of bacteria that can pose health problems. This is why I made the difficult decision to use a closed radiant heat system vs an open one. That’s hundreds of feet of warm water sitting in PEX tubing. Seemed like a health hazard for anyone wanting to drink from the tap (I don’t do it but I have a lot of friends who do!).
Also please note that PEX which is approved as safe by NSF for hot water or even cold water is not common. You have to ask for it, but drinking water safe PEX does exist. How much safer it is than regular PEX, I have no idea.
How are they drinking from a closed system?
Roon Dog says
If the tubing is stamped with NSF-pw or NSF-61, then it has been tested against NSF Standard 61 and deemed to be safe. It is illegal to stamp tubing that has not been tested and NSF approved. Tubing without one of these two stamps is not safe for potable water usage.
I absolutely ADORE and so appreciate all your articles – the research and heart that goes into each one. Curious on the PEX and other plastics – don’t they mold more in the drains? Leaving a house now where we had to constantly remediate the outgoing shower and bath and the kitchen (moldy water?) We have gone to distilled with a post carbon for VoC’s that has helped a ton more than our at-sink RO – we add back organic minerals- just as easy to filter out the copper as the plastic, right? no different for the shower water with a basic filter, or is our laundry and shower/baths better off with the plastic pipes and hope we don’t get them moldy again? what are your thoughts?
It’s usually bacteria in the water source or if it’s in the drains then just build up of gunk there.
6. Galvanized pipe- Still used still considered safe. Loved the article but you can’t leave out one of the most harmful materials galvanized steel pipes. They are zinc coated and even with that protection with a low Ph and the chlorine it wears off in a matter of years. Leaving exposed iron to rust and build up on the inside of the pipe. If you live in a large multi unit building with these pipes alot of times a company is hire to inject silicate or phosphate to coat and halt corrosion. All pipes are going to leach some material because water is the ultimate solvent given time it will dissolve anything. Pex is by far the safest material for potable water.
Thanks Chris. Where have you seen galvanised pipes still used, is that for repairs of old galvanised pipes? The article is focused on pipe materials that folks would have to choose from today that’s why I don’t mention galvanised or lead pipes.
If pex is installed for the water lines, will a proper water filtration system remove chemicals that might leach out?
Angie, i did some other searching on this topic and can’t see any evidence that reverse osmosis filters the chemicals from plastic but it’s the best option out there for filtering water so far, isn’t it? Anyone have any other suggestions?
Brita filters and the other brands do NOT filter copper (i looked hard and long and spoke to the reverse osmosis people too), and it is unknown whether they filter plastic chemicals. I can’t find a filter for SHOWER water, which is hot, again, i spoke to the water filter companies, even their salespeople don’t know, but one of them took the time to consult with his companie’s specialist and they let me return the filter i bought from them because they admitted it does not filter copper. Hot water, as has been said elsewhere on this site, will be more likely to leach copper from the pipes.
Still, i am replacing, slowly, all my old copper pipes and fittings with new copper, class L, the thicker one, which my plumber confirms is the only one that is supposed to be used for potable water. Class M is thinner and used only for heating such as baseboard, etc., never for drinking or bathing.
Good Luck everyone on this difficult issue.
Corrinne, I think everyone would benefit if you could say something about the effects of copper toxicity on the body, either presonally or post some sources. Lead we know. Thanks again for your website.
Roon Dog says
Brita filters, as well as many other brands of pitcher filters, have been shown to INCREASE the aluminum content of water filtered in them. Regular consumption of aluminum, according to some studies, is linked to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
From the Alzheimer’s Association website: As yet no study or group of studies has been able to confirm that aluminium is involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
i need new water pipes. i have been searching for polypropylene for weeks now.
i found aquatherm from germany, in tucson ferguson seems to be phasing it out.
i found 1 plumber that might do aquatherm and if he retired there would be no one to do a repair.
i found a newer product, newer pex PE-RT polyethlene raised temperature. its not crossed, its bimodal
and tolerates higher temperatures and chemicals like chlorine, i think there are several names like nupi/niron/hydropure and pestan and polystar. i can not find any of these products or plumbers to install them. i have called the companies directly to look for a distributor and they give me some names and numbers and some say we dont carry that or we can order that. one gave me the name of a plumbing company with bad reviews and 1 gave me the name of a company that might come.
it is a little hard to say how frustrated i am. i think there are some better products on the market and i dont have access. i will likely get copper with a chlorine filter, because our water is heavily chlorinated.
back to other comments- lead free was up to 8% lead until 2014 and now lead free is .20% -.25%.
chicago was installing lead pipe service lines until 1986.
Home Depot carries PE-RT under the Sharkbite brand. With lead free push to connect fittings and cut offs. I’m likely going to replace my failing copper with it myself, since I have a basement and can get to 90% of it. With the push to connect fittings, I can replace that 90% and connect it to the remaining copper, until I open the walls during remodels and get at the rest then the push to connect fittings can be removed and usually reconnected to the next pipes I replace.
When using shark bite fittings, I have had many (in horizontal position) fail due to freezing temps. This is after I have drained my system. Apparently they catch water in the fitting.
I was just reading an article about PP. It’s hard to find because it doesn’t work well for long. Chlorine in the water (which in the US is unavoidable) breaks down the protective coating on the pipes quickly leading to failures. Sigh. Doesn’t seem to be a perfect option does there?
Canon, you make an excellent point. I am very wary of any type of the plastic pipes because chlorine and hard or acidic water (not the same thing) can break it down in ways that still have not been researched well enough. I’m going with copper but reluctantly, i totally agree with you about the lack of a good option. The problem really is that I can’t seem to even choose the lesser of the two evils.
Corrine, i love your site, it’s helpful to know you are a professional and please do keep posting any sources you find in your travels going forward. On a wish and a prayer some responsible concerned research group might test the plastic pipes more thoroughly to determine what leaches and which corrosives do so.
Robert Haverlock says
EWG suggestions for Healthier Plumbing
Copper or polypropylene pipes
“Lead-free” joint materials, with less than 0.20 percent lead
“Lead-free” faucets and fixtures, with less than 0.25 percent lead
They also say Use copper pipes.
Copper pipes are long lasting and won’t leach chemicals into your drinking water. But I would have to research that ?
So what is the safest answer for what to use?
There is not simple answer between copper and PEX. I definitely prefer pex but others might choose copper.
What about stainless steel pipes?
Josh Cheatham says
I agree. I am sure industrial/commercial establishments use it for many purposes, but it isn’t easily accessible for the residential market. I wish it was and that it was affordable. Second, I have noticed from the Bible and other historical sources, that brass is mentioned often, but not copper. Brass is an alloy of primarily copper and zinc, and the two metals help to balance each other out in the human body (my dad overdosed on zinc so he had low copper and iron levels). If brass was only copper and zinc, it probably would be safe for just about everyone. I still want stainless steel, though. It’s the new gold.
Stainless steel plumbing is not used in residential buildings.
Please be aware that an increasing number of communities are using chloramine to disinfect their water supply, instead of chlorine. Unfortunately, chloramine can cause corrosion and pin-hole leaks in copper pipes. In addition, it’s much more difficult and expensive for homeowners to filter chloramine from water than chlorine.
So many sensitivities have high copper and it becomes toxic. I have a major problem with copper so I would never use copper pipes. Now that I have this problem I see it’s not that unusual in folks with sensitivities and ME/CFS.
What about stainless steel? I know it’s expensive but is it toxic?
Not toxic but not used as main plumbing lines, only those little parts under the sink etc
Ik Corinne answered the piping question but for your future reference Deborah, I’ve researched a very small bit on stainless steel. The grade or rating on a SS product will be a fraction (18/8, 18/0). This is the content percentage of chromium and nickel respectively. Nickel is more of a concern than chromium- total chromium, not hexavalent, btw. The grades I mentioned- 18/8 and 18/0- are safe for food usage. Stainless steel doesn’t contain lead or cadmium, and obviously no BPA or BPS. Look out, though, for containers’ lids and opt for non plastic ones, and some SS water bottles will have an epoxy resin that might contain lead/BPA.
thanks, I added polypropylene, it's not common but could be a better choice.
The EWG recommends copper with lead free joint material or polypropylene, not PEX.
postmodern redneck says
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.
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.
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.
Thank you, I will update.
Thomas Mchugh says
Most fittings for copper are copper. The statement above is incorrect saying they are brass. You can certainly use brass as fittings, but copper is prevalent. Also red brass is a newer product that promotes being lead-free. There are so many products available in brass that are lead-free, including shower/tub valves and hose bibs.
The article says most fittings are copper (before you commented this).
As has been pointed out high acidic water causes copper to leach into your drinking water so copper is not benign either
i dont have acidic water and plastic pipes leach VOV’s
I’m getting a water softener system to reduce the acidity. Any comments, e.g., are there toxic dangers to water softeners?
Mark Ohe says
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thomas Mchugh says
There are so many comments here denoting if the water has chemicals or is acidic, that copper is bad. Or if someone has an issue, copper is bad. Or if someone already has a copper deivce in them, copper is bad. So it appears that standing alone, copper is the best option for potable water supply…but outside factors can cause issues. Wouldn’t his be the case for any material. Look at Detroit. They changed the acidity of the water via changes in the filtration process, and caused all the old lead water lines underground to significantly leech into the water supply. Lead is bad; don’t get me wrong, but it was an irresponsible decision (by the State) and an outside source (change in water flowing through the pipes) that exacerbated the situation.
Same applies here. If the debate is which material is best to supply clean water to a chemical-free house, copper is by far the choice. Noting that copper can leech excessively because of random chemicals in or over acidity of the water is a moot point.
Extreme copper levels almost killed me and the only source was pipes over time leading to a build-up in my body. I will never find copper pipes acceptable for me or for others who cannot process metals well. I had to do a very serious and risky treatment to get the copper out (not something I’m going to mention here). The direct and indirect costs of getting sick from copper was probably 100K or more.
i have read that if the water is acidic more copper will be leached from the pipes, so i checked the acidity of the water here.
William Braylen says