How Do Water Pipe Materials Contribute to Public Health?

Otto Schwake, PhD, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, lead researcher from the Flint Water Study team, explains how the material of water pipes can have public health implications.

Otto Schwake, PhD, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, lead researcher from the Flint Water Study team, explains how the material of water pipes can have public health implications.

Interview Transcript (slightly modified for readability)

“[As to] whether or not the material of a pipe can have public health implications: broad answer, yes. The perfect example of that is lead; lead pipes can lead to lead [leaching] into water. People have been using these materials for a while, including lead, and engineers who run water treatment plants and architects [working on] big buildings and engineers who run buildings, they’ve developed a lot of tricks and knowledge of how these pipes interact with the water itself.

I’m not an engineer, so fair warning, this is me looking outside in on the situation. If water is treated properly, again, a layer of [what] we call, scale, oxidation or chemicals, form around the surface of a pipe material that prevents a ton of leaching, a significant number of leaching, after a point. Sometimes problems can cause this scale to go away or unusual rare chemistry can cause [an] increase in leaching. A good example is the building I actually worked at back at my school [where] I got my PhD. [It was a] brand new building, state of the art, deliberately all copper plumbing. At one point a few months after the building opened, the water started turning blue and it was because the water chemistry was funny to the point where it was leaching so much copper from the plumbing, it actually became toxic to humans and the solution was to let scale build up over time.

So, that was [an] atypical circumstance that [was] due to chemistry in the water leaching that material. So in a 'normal' building connected to water distribution system that is operating properly, copper and iron shouldn’t have noticeable health effects on anyone who is not very sensitive.

One situation where this might be relevant, specifically to a healthcare setting, [is] we’re seeing more and more [of] an [on site] treatment method for hospitals called copper/silver ionization where copper and silver ions are actually introduced to the water at the hospital as it comes in, in an attempt to control bacteria. Legionella problems are often attempted to be remediated by hospital staff by introducing these copper and silver ions. If they are not maintained properly, you can easily introduce toxic levels of copper/silver into water with these coppe/silver ionization systems. Specifically for people in the medical profession, that is something [that] you want to worry about much more so than the drinking water coming into your building.”