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Australian trade group battles non-compliant PVC pipe fittings

By: Kate Tilley

July 28, 2014

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — An Australian plastics industry association is battling against imported, non-conforming PVC pipe fittings, but is stymied by a convoluted web of regulatory bodies.

“It’s a complex and sensitive issue,” Sydney-based Plastics Industry Pipe Association of Australia Ltd. (PIPA) executive general manager Mark Heathcote told Plastics News.

The issue is a trickle of imported Chinese-manufactured PVC fittings for plumbing and drain waste pipes that are manufactured with lead stabilizer, banned in Australian fittings since 2009.

Heathcote said PIPA is in the midst of a second audit of plumbing products on retailers and suppliers’ shelves, following an initial 2012 audit.

“We’re still finding some non-compliant fittings in the marketplace,” he said.

They are from two Chinese manufacturers, whose products were also identified as non-compliant in the 2012 audit.

PIPA has worked with the larger, Sydney-based Australian Industry Group (AIG), a non-profit industry support group, and other regulatory and representative bodies, in a bid to stem the flow of non-conforming fittings.

AIG has investigated non-conforming products across the entire building industry and handed a report, which included the results of PIPA’s first audit, to the Australian Government last year.

Independent conformity assessment bodies (CABs) inspect plumbing products to see if they meet the Plumbing Code of Australia, but Heathcote is uncertain whether non-confirming products slip through because of problems with CABs or manufacturers not giving CABs correct information when they assess products.

CABs are overseen by JAS-ANZ, a government-appointed joint accreditation system for Australia and New Zealand. But Heathcote says PIPA doesn’t have any evidence to formally approach JAS-ANZ.

Another government body, the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB), oversees the plumbing code and the related WaterMark certification scheme, which identifies conforming plumbing products. ABCB took on responsibility for the code and WaterMark in February 2013 and is reviewing the entire scheme. It issued an interim report in January.

Heathcote said he understands the next report, due September, will “narrow the options” for the scheme’s future and ABCB will take further industry submissions before issuing final recommendations to the Australian government.

Heathcote says the issue is further complicated because installers are responsible for using compliant products but there is no point-of-sale regulation. He hopes ABCB’s September report or final recommendations may suggest Australia’s Customs and Border Protection Service police products as they are imported.

The potential dangers from using non-compliant plastic plumbing products are not confined to lead’s health and environmental impacts. Products that don’t meet other elements of the code — for example being under-strength — could fail, with serious consequences if they are installed within buildings’ internal structures.

“The last thing we want is for plastic pipe products to get an unwarranted reputation that should be confined to a rogue group of manufacturers,” Heathcote said.

He says although the amount of non-conforming product entering Australia is “relatively small,” PIPA is concerned it could be “the thin edge of the wedge.” It impacts on “reputable manufacturers and distributors” because non-compliant products are cheaper.

Some, but not all, parties in the supply chain have agreed to stop importing or marketing non-compliant product.

PIPA approached the Department of Fair Trading in the state of Western Australia — where one importer continues supplying non-conforming fittings — but was referred back to ABCB, which has no control over point-of-sale enforcement.

Heathcote agreed the industry is “stuck in a vicious circle.”