California State Pipe Trades Council
"As California's consumer watchdog, we applaud the California State Pipe Trades Council for its record of pro-consumer advocacy." - Richard Holober, Executive Director, Consumer Federation of Cailfornia

PEX Plastic Pipe:  Victory Results in Significant Protection for Homeowners, Building Occupants and Workers

Along with a coalition of consumer, environmental, public health and labor organizations, including Sierra Club California, the Planning and Conservation League, Center for Environmental Health, the Consumer Federation of California, and California Professional Firefighters, the California State Pipe Trades Council successfully fought to require meaningful review of the environmental, public health, and durability concerns associated with cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) plastic potable water pipe.  As part of our long-standing advocacy for State review of health and safety risks from plastic plumbing pipe and other newly proposed building materials, we fought to ensure that these concerns were fully evaluated and mitigated before PEX was approved in the California Plumbing Code. 

As a result of this advocacy, the state has adopted an unprecedented set of restrictions on the use of PEX. The new regulations provide measures to address: (1) the vulnerability of PEX pipe to permeation by outside contaminants such as gasoline or solvents; (2) the vulnerability of PEX to premature failure when exposed to sunlight; (3) the failure of PEX brass fittings due to dezincification and stress crack corrosion; (4) the potential for traditional PEX pipe to fail when installed in continuously recirculating hot water systems; and (5) the potential health impacts from the leaching of chemicals such as methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) from PEX pipe.

Potential Environmental, Health and Economic Risks Posed by PEX

Contamination of drinking water

  • The PEX EIR found that methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) and tert-Butyl alcohol can leach from PEX in amounts that exceed taste, odor and health guidelines set by the State of California for drinking water. The PEX EIR found that PEX pipes can initially leach as much as 290 ppb of MTBE. The California Department of Public Health and the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment have established a drinking water taste and odor standard of 5 ppb for MTBE and a drinking water public health goal and maximum contaminant level of 13 ppb.  One of the key issues for the California State Pipe Trades Council was the recognition that construction workers are often the first to consume water from newly installed pipes.  Because the levels of MTBE contamination from PEX pipe are highest during the first month of use, workers were at risk of repeated exposure to drinking water contaminated with MTBE at levels exceeding public health goals as they moved from job site to job site. 
  • The PEX EIR found that, unlike copper pipe, outside contaminants such as pesticides, oil, gasoline, and benzene can permeate through PEX pipe into drinking water.
  • Several studies and articles comparing potable water pipe materials, including variants of PEX, polybutylene, polypropylene, CPVC, copper and steel, have found that PEX, at least initially, displayed the strongest biofilm formation and the strongest promotion of the growth of Legionella bacteria.

Failure of PEX Pipe and PEX Fittings

  • Failures of PEX and PEX fittings have resulted in consumer lawsuits in Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Colorado and numerous other areas across the United States. 
  • Many brands of PEX rely upon the less-protective PEX chlorine resistance standard ASTM F2023, instead of the much superior NSF P171 standard.  ASTM F2023 only assures an adjusted lifetime of 25 years, while the NSF P171 standard assures a 40 year adjusted lifetime. At least one reputable PEX manufacturer (Lubrizol Advanced Materials, Inc.) has questioned the adequacy of this standard since it only results in “an expected service life of 25 years, five years less than the traditional home loan.” According to Lubrizol Advanced Materials, Inc., polybutylene pipe passed ASTM F2023 and still failed miserably in U.S. water conditions.  Click here to read one PEX manufacturer’s concerns over industry standards.
  • Even short term exposure to sunlight can dramatically reduce the resistance of PEX to chlorine and result in premature rupture of the pipe. Studies show just a one-week exposure to sunlight may reduce the chlorine resistance lifetime of some PEX pipes by half; with a two week exposure completely depleting PEX of any chlorine resistance. The susceptibility to sunlight exposure creates a liability risk to contractors and installers because there is almost no way to tell why PEX pipe has prematurely failed or to determine how long PEX pipe has been exposed to sunlight. 

Lack of Recyclability

  • Because it is a thermoset plastic, PEX cannot be melted down and reused. A 2005 report by the San Francisco Department of the Environment found that PEX was the only type of plastic piping that no plastic recycler would accept. Copper pipe generally contains around 70% recycled material and has almost a 100% recycling rate.

Toxic Smoke

  • PEX produces toxic smoke when burned in building fires.

Industry Resistance to Disclosure and Mitigation of Potential Health and Environmental Safety Risks

Despite evidence of potential failure, leaching and permeation problems, PEX manufacturers continued the long pattern of industry resistance to public disclosure and review of plastic plumbing products under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

In 2002, the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association (PPFA) filed an unsuccessful lawsuit arguing that review of PEX pipe under CEQA was unlawful. The California State Pipe Trades Council, along with the coalition of consumer, environmental and public health organizations, filed an amicus brief opposing this lawsuit.  The Court of Appeal denied the PPFA claim and held that substantial evidence of potential drinking water contamination through chemical leaching and permeation, as well as evidence of mechanical performance problems and failures, required that PEX pipe undergo CEQA review prior to state approval. (Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association v. California Building Standards Commission (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 1390.)

In 2006, The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) attempted to approve PEX through the issuance of a 2006 Negative Declaration that mysteriously claimed that there was no evidence of health, safety and performance issues. In face of the submission of substantial evidence of potential impacts from the use of PEX, the 2006 Negative Declaration was quickly withdrawn and the California Building Standards Commission began work on an environmental impact report (EIR) to study the risks of PEX.

In May 2008, the Building Standards Commission released a Draft Environmental Impact Report (Draft EIR) on the potential risks of PEX pipe. The May 2008 Draft EIR corroborated many of the concerns that we had long raised regarding this product. The Draft EIR proposed a number of important measures in an attempt to mitigate these hazards, including a requirement that PEX meet California Safe Drinking Water Act standards for public health, taste and odor. 

Just a few months later, however, after receiving protests from the PEX manufacturers and meeting with industry lobbyists, the Commission released a Revised Draft EIR that reversed many of the key findings of the original May 2008 report.  Based on this reversal, the California Building Standards Commission adopted regulations approving PEX pipe.  The California State Pipe Trades Council, along with the coalition of other environmental, consumer and public health groups, then filed a lawsuit challenging the Revised EIR and the adoption of regulations approving PEX. 

On December 30, 2009, the Alameda County Superior Court entered judgment overturning the approval of PEX and requiring preparation of a new environmental impact report.  The Court held that the Commission failed to evaluate cancer and other health risks from chemicals leaching from PEX, failed to evaluate drinking water taste and odor impacts from chemical leaching, and failed to evaluate the risk of premature PEX pipe failures in certain applications.  The Court ordered the State to withdraw the regulations and redo the EIR.  PPFA appealed the ruling.  Click here to read the Court’s decision.

While the appeal was pending, the State prepared a new EIR to address the issues raised in the ruling, leading to a settlement agreement that provided for the imposition of new requirements and restrictions on the installation of PEX pipe in California buildings. 

Settlement Imposes Unprecedented Restrictions on the Use of PEX Pipe in California Buildings

Pursuant to the 2010 settlement agreement, the State of California has approved the use of PEX subject to the following mitigation measures and restrictions:

  1. When PEX tubing is placed in soil and is used in potable water systems intended to supply drinking water to fixtures or appliances, the tubing or piping shall be sleeved with a material approved for potable water use in soil or other material that is impermeable to solvents or petroleum products.
  2. PEX installed in any recirculating hot water system must meet or exceed the ASTM F876-08 performance requirements for PEX tubing product life in a continuously recirculating hot water system.
  3. PEX brass fittings must meet or exceed the NSF 14-2009 requirements to prevent dezincification and stress crack corrosion.
  4. All installations of PEX pipe where it is the initial plumbing piping installed in new construction shall be flushed twice over a period of at least one week.   The pipe system shall be first flushed for at least 10 minutes and then filled and allowed to stand for no less than 1 week, after which all the branches of the pipe system must be flushed long enough to fully empty the contained volume.  This provision shall not apply to the installation of PEX pipe where it replaces an existing pipe system of any material.  
    At the time of fill, each fixture shall have a removable tag applied stating:
    “This new plumbing system was first filled and flushed on ______ (date) by ___________ (name).  The State of California requires that the system be flushed after standing at least one week after the fill date specified above.  If this system is used earlier than one week after the fill date, the water must be allowed to run for at least two minutes prior to use for human consumption.  This tag may not be removed prior to the completion of the required second flushing, except by the building owner or occupant.”
    Prior to issuing a building permit to install PEX pipe, the building official shall require as part of the permitting process that the contractor, or the appropriate plumbing subcontractors, provide written certification that he or she will comply with the flushing procedures set forth in the Code.  The building official shall not give final permit approval of any PEX plumbing installation unless he or she finds that the material has been installed in compliance with the requirements of the Code, including the requirements to flush and tag the systems.  Any contractor or subcontractor found to have failed to comply with the PEX flushing requirements shall be subject to the penalties in Health and Safety Code, Division 13, Part 1.5, Chapter 6 (Section 17995, et seq.).
  5. All PEX pipe installed in California must provide at least 30-day UV protection.

These provisions provide unprecedented protection to California workers, residents, and homeowners.  Nonetheless, concerns remain regarding taste and odor impacts from low-quality PEX products, the sufficiency of PEX performance standards that only require a 25 year adjusted lifetime, the inability to tell how long PEX has been exposed to sunlight prior to installation, and the lack of meaningful recyclability of this product.