On World Plumbing Day 2016, Our Responsibility to Assure Safe Water is More Important Than Ever

Barbara Higgens, Executive Director and CEO, Plumbing Manufacturers International | March 9, 2016

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards presented at the annual conference of Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI) last October. His presentation centered around opportunistic premise plumbing pathogens (OPPPs) that can develop in water systems and cause disease. But he took some time to tell us of his involvement in the Flint water crisis, which at the time was brewing. Over the past few months, Edwards has risen to national prominence by leading the response to the crisis and by being a model of integrity in action.

As we celebrate World Plumbing Day on March 11, Edwards’ work serves as a reminder about why plumbing matters and what we must do to safeguard our plumbing and water systems in the future.

In remarks about OPPPs and Flint at our conference, his overall message was clear: we can’t take the safety of our water systems for granted, particularly as changes are made to current systems and newer kinds of water systems are introduced. Building more sustainable water systems with the best intentions can still result in unintended consequences if proper precautions are not taken. It’s the duty of those of us in the plumbing and water industries to make sure the potential consequences of change are thoroughly explored before going down the path unknown.

When Flint decided to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, officials in charge of making the transition failed to consider all the consequences of that change, leading to disastrous decisions pertaining to corrosion control and lead testing. This failure led to lead leaching into the water and a terrible public health crisis. PMI and its members have joined with many other concerned groups and individuals to help mitigate the effects of this crisis.

Now, Edwards is warning us that OPPPs pose a threat to public health. To learn how they can be prevented, he is advocating for more research on how these pathogens grow. The best known OPPP is legionella pneumophila, the cause of Legionnaires’ disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged that these pathogens are now the primary source of waterborne disease deaths in the United States.

Edwards’ research shows that OPPPs are more likely to grow when water lies stagnant in pipes leading to the tap. This finding provides an alert at a time when lower flow rates and alternative kinds of water systems that keep water in pipes longer are being considered as solutions to water shortages.

A recent Virginia Tech study authored by Edwards and his colleagues showed that water is retained longer within some green building systems than within conventional systems. As water ages within these systems, the chance for OPPP growth increases. From the authors’ point of view, the chemical and microbiological stability of water quality in systems with high water age must be better understood, as must various other factors relating to water temperature, the kinds of materials used in plumbing systems, and much more.

In California, reduced water usage combined with lower flow rates are having “unfortunate side effects,” according to a Feb. 27 story in the Washington Post. In addition to killing trees and putting financial pressures on water utilities, the reduced usage has lowered the outflow of water needed to push waste through sewage tunnels. The story quotes George Tchobanoglous, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis. He said the flow has dropped to 50 gallons per day within sewers designed to receive about 120 gallons a day to move waste water sufficiently. “You have solids that you flush and there’s not enough water to carry the material,” he told the Washington Post. The consequences of this reduced water flow are the rotten-egg odor of hydrogen sulfide and pipe corrosion.

Do these side effects mean that we shouldn’t strive to save water? Of course not. But what it does mean is that we must fully leverage methods of saving water proven to be safe and effective rather than methods that are untested. For example, toilets, showerheads and faucets certified by the EPA’s WaterSense program meet stringent performance standards while being 20 percent more water efficient than other plumbing products meeting federal standards. But WaterSense products are underutilized across the country. In California, where residents are being encouraged to replace lawns with expensive landscaping alternatives, millions of homes and businesses have not simply replaced toilets, showerheads and faucets with WaterSense models that can collectively save hundreds of millions of gallons of water a day. Only 5.5 percent of the state’s 33.5 million residential and commercial toilets meet WaterSense standards, as well as only 21.1 percent of the bathroom faucets and 23.9 percent of the showerheads, according to a study commissioned by PMI and conducted by GMP Research, Inc.

While reminding us not to take the safety of our water systems for granted, Edwards also asked us at our fall conference to serve as sentinels as we move into a time of rapid change. To avert a public health crisis, it’s up to plumbing and water professionals to ask the hard questions, to do proper due diligence to protect public health and safety, and suggest solutions, like WaterSense products, that we know will be safe and effective.

Over the last several decades, waterborne illnesses and lead poisoning have been relatively rare occurrences. We avoided these crises because plumbing and water professionals have guarded against potential hazards and have worked diligently to keep our water systems safe. That’s why plumbing matters, and why our continued advocacy for safety is so important. We are the safeguards at the interface between water sources and kitchens and baths where water is consumed. We have a more important role to play now than ever. That’s why everyday is World Plumbing Day at PMI. We stand with our members to assure safe, responsible plumbing. Always.