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Above: More durable and inexpensive, PVC pipes with lead are preferred for carrying water/Photo: enterslice.com

Despite NGT orders about the dangers of lead contamination, the government has done little to prevent the sale of PVC pipes with lead which carry water and endanger the population

By Ramesh Menon

How is drinking water transported to your home? If it comes through polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, be very worried. Most manufacturers of PVC water pipes use lead as a stabiliser, which slowly leaches into the water. Lead is a toxic material and the body cannot throw it out, leading to numerous health complications.

According to WHO, young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead as they can get affected with anaemia, jaundice and hearing loss. In adults, it can cause high blood pressure and kidney damage. Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and pre­mature birth and low birth weight of the baby.

The level of lead in drinking water should be zero, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. It warns that lead can, in the course of time, accumulate in the body and damage the central nervous system and the brain, impair growth, damage the kidneys and lower sperm count.

For nearly three years, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been asking the government to arrive at a set of rules to ensure that lead is not used in water pipes. In March this year, the NGT was hearing a plea by lawyer Ajay Kumar Singh who wanted withdrawal of pipes containing lead-based stabilisers. The NGT asked the government to finalise standards for lead in PVC pipes by June. But the environment ministry has dragged its feet and is still not ready.  The plastic manufacturers’ lobby has petitioned the NGT to take back that order, saying they have not been heard.

In January 2015, the Jan Sahyog Manch, an NGO, too had filed a plea with the NGT saying that lead should not be used in pipes carrying water. As there was no printed or visual information about the lead content in water-carrying pipes, the public was unaware of the health hazards it entailed, the plea said. It was then that the Tribunal asked the government to consult the Bureau of Indian Standards and come up with a standard that would not affect users. Finally, the government told the Tribunal last month that a draft notification was ready and it was being sent to various ministries for vetting and comments.

It is shocking that the government did not think it necessary to conduct a scientific study on the health effects of these PVC pipes. An estimate by Mumbai-based All India Plastics Manufacturers’ Association (AIPMA) puts the estimated value of the PVC pipe industry in India at around Rs 20,500 crore. Nearly 50 percent of PVC pipes are used for water supply in the country. About 1.3 lakh tonnes of these pipes are sold every month. Being more durable and inexpensive, they are preferred over metal and cement pipes. It is lead stabilisers that improve the durability of PVC pipes by improving resistance to heat and sunlight. If an alternative like zinc is used, the production costs could rise by three to five percent.

Deputy DG of the Centre for Science and Environment and activist Chandra Bhushan told India Legal: “Lead which is a neurotoxin must be removed from the environment. There was no need for it to be used in PVC as the manufacturers could find an alternative. But a study had to be conducted before an alternative was decided upon as it should not lead to newer health hazards.”

In May 2017, NGT chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar said that in view of the potential adverse health effects due to lead in PVC pipes, the matter needs to be expeditiously examined on scientific grounds by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The ministry was also asked to set standards for the use of lead in water pipes within four months, but it was not done. The government took some action only because of the court direction. In fact, the US and China have banned lead-containing PVC pipes for carrying drinking water way back in 1986 and 2006, respectively. The European Union had already phased them out in 2006.

In the court, the government argued that many countries were using PVC pipes to carry drinking water and thereby voiced the stand of the industry. It said that shifting from lead to another alternative was extremely difficult and highly time-consuming. Environment Secretary CK Mishra did not respond to India Legal’s queries and other officials of the Ministry also skirted the issue of what their future course of action would be.

Deepak Ballani, DG of AIPMA, told India Legal: “To immediately stop using lead in PVC pipes is going to be difficult. The alternatives of replacing it with zinc or calcium are hardly available in India and will have to be imported, mostly from China. Machines will also have to be retrofitted and the resulting costs will hit small and medium manufacturers as it entails huge investments. The changes cannot be done overnight. It can be done in a phased manner in around four to five years. We could start with pipes bringing water and move to those for agriculture and lastly, sewage systems.”

Sources said that some Indian manufacturers had started manufacturing lead-free PVC pipes to export to countries where lead in drinking water pipes was banned. Ironically, government projects also use PVC pipes and replacing them may not be that easy. In July 2018, the government admitted in Parliament that the toxic effects of lead in water had been well-established. The weeks ahead will show how committed the government is in ensuring that lead is no more used in PVC water pipes.

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