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