A water pipe material conundrum

What should our water pipes be made from? This is a question taken up in a recent story by The Telegraph on copper water pipes. The Telegraph’s story is based on research apparently claiming that copper pipes could harm your health (e.g. by contributing to Alzheimer’s and heart disease). So what should we make of this story?

Fortunately for us all, a rather excellent – but sadly little-known – research-reviewing service comes to our rescue. The NHS’ Behind the Headlines website looks at just this kind of story from the mass media. It pulls them apart, checks whether the science/research behind a story is sound, then gives an opinion on what to make of it all. It’s really rather helpful… kind of a more formal version of the highly-amusing Bad Science blog, where Ben Goldacre does much the same thing for a lot of health-related news (and of course it was actually from one of Dr Goldacre’s posts that I got to hear about the excellent BtH website in the first place…).

So whilst you could go and read the original article on ‘Risks of copper and iron toxicity during aging in humans‘ in the Chemical Research in Toxicology journal (no doubt bearing in mind you’ll need a paid subscription, as free models for open-to-all access to academic journals have yet to be universally accepted!)… simply popping over to the BtH coverage of this story might get you to the crux of the matter faster.

Briefly, BtH notes that this Telegraph story was based on a research article that had undertaken ‘a non-systematic review‘ (i.e. the kind that ‘may omit some scientific research that may go against the researcher’s hypothesis‘). BtH also highlights that the ‘majority of studies presented‘ in the original research article ‘were in animals or cells‘ and that the article’s author ‘has over-extrapolated their results to apply to humans‘.

Does this mean it’s safe to drink out of copper water pipes? Not really, no. As with many of BtH’s reviews of research, the final position is rather inconclusive. They simply state that further research is needed to properly test the notion of health-related impacts in humans from actual copper water pipes (i.e. rather than discussing health impacts on animals from copper-dosed water and so on).

Of course we wouldn’t want to detract from the fact that what to make our water pipes out of is very a serious issue with potentially staggering health consequences. BtH rightly note that the dietary/health roles of copper (and iron) are important (and complex) matters. Here’s hoping that appropriate research is indeed currently underway.

After all, although many materials have been used over time to make water pipes – from lead, to stone, concrete, wood, iron, copper, HDPE plastic and so on – quite a few materials have only really been tried on a large-scale in the last 100 years or so. And most were in use for only relatively short periods of time (i.e. making it difficult to determine long-term impacts on our health by simply waiting for conditions to crop up in the general population).

Large sums of money continue to be spent on water pipe retrofitting, refurbishment and replacement around the world. And yet the question of whether we’re using the safest materials available for these jobs seemingly remains an open one…

Update (15/11/2016): Public domain featured image added from this source.

Duncan Thomas

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