The PVC and polyethylene pipe industries both need to get to work educating the public about the safety and durability of ``today's'' plastic pipe — or face the potential loss of hard-earned market share.
Like automotive fuel tanks, pipe is a large, low-profile, high-risk application for plastics. Consumers don't care that natural gas and water are transported via plastic pipe. But when the pipe fails — as some inevitably will, regardless of the material — you can be sure that the reaction will not be good for the plastics industry.
April was a cruel month for plastic pipe, at least as measured by U.S. newspaper headlines. First, several rural water districts in Kansas turned up evidence of vinyl chloride monomer in drinking water, apparently the result of PVC pipes installed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Soon afterward, the National Transportation Safety Board suggested that some pipe used in natural gas lines was prone to crack, and that regulators needed to examine the problem. NTSB's report pointed to potential problems with pipe made in the 1960s through the early 1980s, which typically was high density polyethylene.
The faulty natural gas pipe is suspected of causing explosions that resulted in 40 deaths.
If this were any other kind of pipe, the public would see this as a crumbling infrastructure problem. But given the negative connotations of plastic, surely consumers will be tempted to blame, more specifically, ``cheap plastic'' pipe.
Manufacturers of pipe made from competing materials will be tempted to capitalize on these calamities. And, certainly, unfriendly groups like Greenpeace already have begun to make hay with the PVC pipe problems.
Trade groups, including the Vinyl Institute and its Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association affiliate, already have mobilized on the PVC pipe issue, even to the point of arranging bottled water delivery to some affected residents. And they have won praise from potential regulatory adversaries — some of whom, themselves, may be at fault for letting the problem go unchecked for six years.
Industry should not see this simply as an opportunity to replace old, defective pipe. These health and safety concerns are serious.
Instead, pipe manufacturers in months ahead must be prepared to defend the safety record of their products, to accept responsibility for the defective pipe, and to assure consumers that pipe made today is superior to the problem products made a decade or more ago.