plastic water bottles in bulk

How plastic helps get the lead out

Newark, NJ, has advised residents to drink only bottled water, typically distributed in plastic bottles, because of the high lead content in its water system, partly caused by aging metal pipes. How about attacking the root cause of the problem by replacing—or lining—them with PVC pipes?

Over the past couple of days, a big news story broke regarding the city of Newark’s drinking water crisis. Newark has discovered that 13% of children in the state of New Jersey with high levels of lead in their systems reside in that city. Once again, it’s plastics to the rescue! Newark has advised its residents to drink only bottled water that the city is distributing.

Photo after photo in various news articles showed stacks of bottled water at distribution areas, shrink-wrapped in film for easy and lightweight shipping. Thanks to PET for the bottles and the shrink film, water can be delivered safely and at a lower cost than, say, glass bottles or aluminum cans. Thanks to the amazing benefits of plastic, people are able to receive noncontaminated drinking water.

But the crisis of aging lead pipes in so many municipal water systems, particularly in the eastern cities that were built more than 100 years ago, can be solved by another innovation in plastics: PVC pipe. JM Eagle is one of the largest PVC pipe manufacturers in the world. Its products are used extensively in sewer and water systems in municipalities large and small throughout the country. In April 2016, at the height of the Flint, MI, lead pipe crisis, when it was decided that all the pipes in the city’s system had to be replaced, JM Eagle stepped up and offered the city free PVC pipe worth, according to some estimates, $95 million. 

As of August 2016, the latest report I could find, the city of Flint still had not decided whether to accept JM Eagle’s offer, noting past legal problems the company had faced. What it failed to notice was the history of that litigation, the person—a disgruntled employee—who started it and the fact that throughout the years-long investigations and court trials, the pipes sold to municipalities were of high quality and not the cause of any damage. (If you care to, you can read the many reports I wrote during this time period at

While decades of testing various plastics used in our everyday life have never definitively shown them to cause any harm to human beings, the same can’t be said of lead.

To me, there’s no question of the better choice. Plastic pipe is used around the world because of its durability and safety. Many municipalities use plastic pipe as inner liners for the old, decaying lead pipes, rather than digging up the metal pipes and replacing them, saving cities a lot of money. 

We in the plastics industry continue to let urban myths about “toxic” plastics and fear-mongering by the anti-plastics crowd control the media message. The result is that potable water is becoming increasingly more dangerous because of aging lead pipe systems in many cities. Decisions by city officials not to allow plastic pipes to replace aging lead pipes because of these myths will result in more children having high levels of lead in their bodies.

In SPE’s Tech Talk Digest, a member communications and information site, a member asked us for any articles or studies on the “pros and cons” of plastics and what we thought were the top 10 beneficial products that plastics has made possible. Naturally, this person received a number of answers, including one from yours truly inviting him to read my blogs/articles in

I’m sure the people of Flint who suffered that water crisis are grateful for the thousands of plastic bottles of water provided to them, as are the people of Newark are now. But plastic bottles of water are only a temporary solution. The larger, long-term fix is replacing aging lead pipes—or lining them—with PVC. 

That’s just one more way that plastics has made our lives safer and better!

Image: sergeyklopotov/Adobe Stock

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