Why Your Water Tastes Like Plastic
If you’ve recently taken a swig of plastic-flavored tap water, you may be wondering: why does my water taste like plastic?
Is it bad for my health? If you can narrow down whether your tap water tastes like fruity plastic or a rubbery plastic with an antiseptic taste, there may be a solution in your pipes. For those of you thinking of re-plumbing with plastic pipes, some forewarning about taste and the state of knowledge.
What’s in the pipes?
As you might know by now, the pipes that carry your tap water come in a variety of materials. Lead was outlawed in 1986, though in older homes plumbing fixtures may still have lead (check out our Lead Risk Map). Copper pipes are also common pipe material, but expensive compared to the most popular plumbing material today: plastic. Cheap and easy-to-install polymers (i.e. plastics) have taken over tap water plumbing in the last 70 years.
Fruity plastic taste?
If your water tastes like fruity plastic or rubbery, this is likely an indication of leachates from your plastic pipes. If your pipes were installed recently, they should be thoroughly flushed and likely left unused for 14 days after installation. If plastic odor and smells persist, it could be due to the way your treated water interacts with the pipes. Odors have been shown to increase in the presence of residual chlorine and disinfection byproducts.
Antiseptic, Cleaning AgentTCP-like taste?
If your water tastes more like an antiseptic, or like the cleaning reagent TCP, it is likely that your water is getting in contact with fixtures for other appliances like dishwashers or washing machines. This can happen when the piping fixtures are poorly put together, your appliances have no check-valve to prevent back flow into your pipes, or the plumbing is old. It’s best to get your plumbing checked if this taste persists.
If my water smells and tastes like plastic, is my health at risk?
If you take standards as the arbiters of truth, you might come away thinking that the odor and taste compounds associated with plastic pipes are not harmful to human health. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International's Standard 61: Drinking Water System Components-Health Effects is the gold standard for testing plastic pipes, and allow for pipes to go to market if they pass their tests. But they make some pretty big assumptions.
The American Society of Civil Engineers pointed out that the NSF tests plastic pipes assuming one disinfection treatment scenario and does not make their results public. With over 70% of Americans using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes and most new plumbing systems being plastic, this is bound to underestimate the real health risks.
There are many types of plastic pipes, and all of them are stronger and more durable than the plastic in your typical water bottle. Alongside PVC, chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC), high density polyethylene (HDPE) and cross-lined polyethelene (PEX) are the main types of plastic pipes out there today. PEX and HDPE are touted as safer than PVC and CPVC because there are fewer solvents and glues. By our account at SimpleWater, the actual long-term safety of these pipes remains understudied and uncertain.
Researchers have found 158 compounds in drinking water associated with plastic pipes, and a recent study on PEX discovered highly variable impacts on tap water quality and smell. We can’t make a blanket statement about the health impacts of plastic pipes because water treatment (like chlorines and chloramines) and pipe-brand impact the final tap water quality.
What does this mean for homeowners and renters? As study-lead Dr. Andrew Whelton put in an interview with Ensia, the proprietary brand and risk information is hurting people trying to make safe choices:
“I am a homeowner who has had to replumb his house before, and I am frustrated about the way things are. We don’t have information about the chemicals that are leaching out of these pipes, and because of that, we can’t make the decisions we want to make….There have been marketing campaigns that imply we understand the safety of these products. In fact, we do not.”
If you have questions about testing your water for any sort of contaminant, including those coming from plastic pipes, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, or anywhere else, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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