New Delhi: The dream of piped drinking water in every Indian household comes with a caveat — it could expose people to lead, a dangerous heavy metal.
Drinking water comes to most taps through polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes. Some cheap PVC pipes use lead stabilisers.
Experts say the risk of lead leaching from these pipes into drinking water is real, but efforts to regulate its use have yet to bear fruit, partly due to government lethargy and partly due to resistance from industry.
NGT demanded action in 2017
In May 2017, India’s apex environment court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), said in its judgment that in view of “the potential adverse health effects due to presence of lead in water flowing through PVC pipes”, action be taken “expeditiously”.
It directed the environment ministry to set standards for the use of lead in PVC pipes within four months from May 2017, and come up with a phase-out plan. The response from the government, though, was far from expeditious.
Almost two years on, there are no standards in place, and no plan to phase out the use of the heavy metal.
“We are concerned about the poisoning of the water with lead… This has been shown by various reputable studies,” said A.V.S. Rao, a former employee of the NGO Jan Sahyog Manch, which filed the original petition in the NGT. “We felt that in the overall interest of the community, the petition should be filed.”
Three crucial questions
The estimated value of the PVC pipe industry in India is Rs 20,500 crore, according to a 2016 estimate by the All India Plastics Manufacturers Association (AIPMA), a trade body. About 50 per cent of the pipes are used for transporting drinking water and plumbing.
PVC pipes are corrosion-free, and therefore last longer than metal or cement pipes. Lead stabilisers improve the durability of PVC pipes by improving resistance to heat and sunlight.
But the use of lead stabilisers raises multiple questions: Does the lead leach into drinking water? Is it significant enough to cause harm to humans and the environment? Does lead in drinking water harm humans?
There is not enough data in India to answer the first two questions, and not much has happened in the past two years to fill the gap. But the answer to the last question is a resounding yes.
The government has recognised as much. “Toxic effects of lead in water are well established through studies of several premier institutions,” it said in Parliament in July 2018.
The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends that the level of lead in drinking water should be zero because of the dangers from even low levels of exposure, since over time, the metal can accumulate in the body and damage the central nervous system and the brain, impair growth, damage the kidneys and lower sperm count. Children are at the greatest risk from lead poisoning, which can also cause anaemia, jaundice and hearing loss.
Environment ministry dodges responsibility
During the hearing of the petition in the NGT, the environment ministry did its best to wriggle out of regulating this unkempt corner of industry.
At first, it claimed that it did not have the mandate to set standards for the quality of products, including water. It is the job of the Bureau of Indian Standards, the ministry argued. This did not find traction with the NGT, which cited the example of the regulation of the quality of coal that is used in thermal power plants because of its potential to cause pollution.
The ministry also argued that lead stabiliser in PVC pipes is “not banned in many advanced countries, like Russia, China and Brazil”. However, even in China, which is not considered a beacon for environmental regulations, the China Plastics Piping Association had announced voluntary elimination of lead by 2015. The EU already had a commitment from manufacturers to replace lead-based stabilisers by 2015.
Finally, it made the argument that the shift from lead to other alternatives was “not impossible but extremely difficult and highly time-consuming”. In this, it echoed what industry representatives said.
“Lead stabilizers are being used in manufacturing of PVC pipes on account of its availability, efficient heat stability, non-availability of alternate stabilisers and non-toxic effect on water of the pipes produced using lead stabilisers,” an AIPMA spokesperson contended.
But less harmful options like Tin or Calcium Zinc are already being used by bigger manufacturers, though at a higher cost. A senior executive at Signet Industries told The Hindu BusinessLine that replacing lead with zinc in PVC pipes could add 3-5 per cent to manufacturing costs.
The government also raised doubts about whether the lead in drinking water originated from PVC pipes. However, during the hearing, the AIPMA acknowledged that some leaching of lead from the inner walls of PVC pipes does occur when they are first installed, though it diminishes over time.
The tribunal noted that even if substantive evidence from India did not exist, it was necessary to act based on “precautionary principles”, and called for haste in doing so. The urgency does not seem to be reflected in the ministry’s actions.
Warning introduced, then removed
The only tangible action to come from the ministry was a notification asking manufacturers who use lead stabilisers to put a warning on their products that they “contain lead which is harmful to health”. This was done at the express direction of the NGT in a January 2018 order.
This, too, was challenged by the Chemical and Petrochemical Manufacturers’ Association, which said that its concerns had not been heard. The NGT backtracked on the question of the warning in May last year.
Industry representatives said they were waiting for the ministry to come up with a notification. At the January hearing, the ministry promised a final notification of standards and the phase-out plan by July 2018.
“It has not been issued yet, it is in process,” Susan George, an official in the ministry’s Control of Pollution division, said this month.
On 14 January, the NGT had set 14 February as the deadline for the ministry to submit a status report. It will look into compliance at the next hearing on 26 March.
This article is the second of a three-part series. Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from WaterAid India.
The author is a freelance journalist who reports on science and environment.
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