By Norris McDonald
When people talk about environmental harm, it’s natural to think of global warming, nuclear accidents, contaminants polluting our oceans and local waterways, and oil spills. But there is another great danger that is lurking much closer to home than many people realize. In fact, for some people, it’s lurking in their homes. It’s plastic pipes that carry drinking water in and wastewater out. More commonly called PVC, these pipes are made of dangerous chemicals that have harmful effects on human bodies.
Unfortunately for homeowners, though, PVC pipes are a lot cheaper than other materials. But it’s just not true that PVC is a suitable alternative to materials like iron that is known to be a safer pipe. A recent article in a Colorado newspaper indicated that people who bought homes built in the late 1970s to mid-1990s were looking to replace polybutylene pipes on the advice of plumbers because those pipes are brittle and more prone to corrosion. The article suggested replacing those pipes with PVC. But what the piece failed to mention is that polybutylene is a plastic resin so in essence, homeowners would be swapping one kind of plastic for another.
It’s hard to fathom that there are people who don’t recognize the critical health hazard plastic presents, but for every industry and material, there are always special interests trying to get people to look the other way. You just have to look at the amount of money spent by oil and coal companies to realize the truth in that. As for plastic, it’s the equivalent of Styrofoam – a cheap product with a plethora of uses that many people gravitated toward, but eventually we came to understand how harmful it is to our environment.
All across America, there are communities banning plastic bags. Restaurants are replacing plastic utensils with ones made from natural products, and delivery services are giving people to option to tell take-out places not to include plastic knives, forks and spoons. On Grubhub, people check a box that says they’re doing their part for the environment by eschewing the automatic inclusion of plastic cutlery.
If we don’t want to eat with plastic and we don’t want to use it to carry out groceries and pharmacy items, why are still allowing it to ferry our drinking water? Environmental activities of a certain age well recall the fight against McDonald’s in the late 1980s and early 1990s to force them to stop using chlorofluorocarbon for their take-out containers. Although the restaurant claimed the ozone-destroying foam was safe enough to carry food in, activists prevailed and the restaurant – and many others – stopped using this harmful material. It wasn’t just that it was piling up in landfills; there were serious questions raised about the chemicals leeching into food. Today, the same questions are being raised about plastic, except that the queries focus on the water we use for drinking, cooking and bathing.
About half of the PVC made in the United States is manufactured in Louisiana, and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that people living in Mossville, LA, near one of the production plants had three times more dioxin in their blood than the average person. Dioxin is a known carcinogen and it one of the most dangerous toxic substances in the world. Dioxin is used to make PVC, and here are just some of the health problems connected to dioxin, according to the Healthy Building Network:
* Endocrine disruption;
* Neurological damage;
* Birth defects & impaired child development;
* Reproductive and immune system damage.
PVC has become overwhelmingly present in our homes, used in vinyl flooring, wallpaper, shower curtains, even in electrical equipment. Take a look around your own house or office and consider just how much plastic is surrounding you. Storage bins, lightweight tables and picture frames surely present little harm to us, but municipal officials should think very carefully about whether they really want such a harmful material as PVC carrying drinking water that, for our health, must be clean and safe. It is a matter of environmental justice that we phase out this dangerous material.
In the 1950s, even doctors were saying that smoking was OK. We now know the horribly dangerous lie that turned out to be. We know that plastic PVC is dangerous to our well-being. It’s time to act accordingly.
Norris McDonald is the president of the African American Environmentalist Association.