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, but you can go with copper if you choose to.
Outgoing pipes as well as vents are usully ABS or PVC.
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Do Polyethylene (PE or PEX) Pipes Leach Chemicals?
Polyethylene (PEX) has become the most popular option for new homes in North America.
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, as metal is a more problematic underlying toxin.
It’s also longer lasting. The chemical leaching in PEX will go down over time while copper will continue to leach. Personally, many of my own health problems were caused by copper pipes so I’m not a big fan. 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).
For people very concerned about mold prevention, 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 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 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 7 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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