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Issue 2, 2021
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Drinking water contamination from the thermal degradation of plastics: implications for wildfire and structure fire response

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Abstract

This study was conducted to determine if the thermal degradation of various plastic drinking water pipes (i.e., PEX, HDPE, PP, PVC, and CPVC) may be a source of drinking water contamination. Widespread volatile organic compound (VOC) contamination was found in water distribution systems following three wildfires in California. A potential source of this contamination was thought to be due to the degradation of plastic components in drinking water distribution systems. Eleven plastic drinking water pipes, across eight brands, were exposed to elevated temperatures (200 °C to 400 °C), and subsequently submerged in water or in n-hexane to observe the extent of VOC leaching. Results indicated that thermally damaged drinking water pipes can be sources of VOC leaching, with ten of the eleven materials leaching benzene, a carcinogen, into water. As exposure temperature increased, an increase in VOC leaching was observed in the polyethylene materials. Conversely, in the vinyl materials the significant mass loss associated with high exposure temperature was inversely proportional to the amount of BTEX leaching that was observed. Additional tentatively identified compounds (TICs), consisting primarily of aliphatic hydrocarbons, saturated ketones, or aromatic compounds, were found in the water (22 TICs) and n-hexane (134 TICs) leachate of burned plastics. This study has significant implications for both wildfire and structure fire recovery as plastic materials are increasingly being used in buried and building plumbing, and visual inspection is not a sufficient indicator of contamination risk.

Graphical abstract: Drinking water contamination from the thermal degradation of plastics: implications for wildfire and structure fire response

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Supplementary files

Article information


Submitted
12 Sep 2020
Accepted
23 Nov 2020
First published
14 Dec 2020

This article is Open Access

Environ. Sci.: Water Res. Technol., 2021,7, 274-284
Article type
Communication

Drinking water contamination from the thermal degradation of plastics: implications for wildfire and structure fire response

K. P. Isaacson, C. R. Proctor, Q. E. Wang, E. Y. Edwards, Y. Noh, A. D. Shah and A. J. Whelton, Environ. Sci.: Water Res. Technol., 2021, 7, 274
DOI: 10.1039/D0EW00836B

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    [Original citation] - Published by The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) on behalf of the European Society for Photobiology, the European Photochemistry Association, and RSC.
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    [Original citation] - Published by The Royal Society of Chemistry.

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