(Oct. 23, 2006) — Water is our lifeblood, making pipe our lifeline. We turn a nozzle, push a button, lift a lever. And in less than a second, sanitary water is there for us to drink, to wash our clothes, to clean ourselves.
I was listening to famed explorer and environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau give the keynote address at technical conference Plastics Pipes XIII in Washington when it occurred to me that I have taken this luxury for granted my entire life.
According to World Health Organization data, about 1.2 billion people — one-fifth of the world's population — lack access to safe drinking water. Twice that many live without sanitation.
More than 8,200 people die every day, simply because they don't have the same access as I do to those nozzles, buttons and levers. The ones I take for granted.
Human health issues aside, North America's dilapidated infrastructure is costing us money. Lots of it. And, according to pipe industry officials, it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Bob Walker, executive director of Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association, said corroding metal pipe and fittings represent 80-90 percent of the problem. Municipalities throughout the country collectively spend a staggering $36 billion annually repairing broken water mains, and replacing defective pipe.
While we're lamenting the loss of life and money, nearly 6 billion gallons of water is lost every day from corroded or damaged pipe in the United States.
As some of the aging infrastructure — mostly cast iron and asbestos-cement — nears the end of its life cycle, decision makers are stuck in the unenviable position of having to wait for failure before replacement. The systematic replacement of all aging, but functional, pipe would be beyond cost-prohibitive.
However, the time is now to think about the future, so my generation's great-grandchildren aren't sitting around having this same conversation.
The life expectancy of plastic pipe, be it polyethylene or PVC, is the better part of a century in water-transfer applications. Using tax dollars to overpay laborers to install more corrosive materials into our infrastructure is the equivalent of using public money to finance fast food and tobacco for heart patients on Medicare.
This isn't science fiction. Plastic pipe is a proven commodity. Yet decision makers throughout the country continue to stubbornly ignore the benefits, and shun plastic pipe in favor of metal.
It's hard to imagine prolonged stubbornness as plastic continues to gain market share and pipe manufacturers continue to make technological improvements.
But until sustainable development becomes the mission of our government leaders, we will continue to scratch our collective heads over red budget numbers while wishing there was something more we could do for the 8,200 people that are going to die today.
Griswold is a staff reporter based in Akron. His beats include construction.