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Some European Union nations already prohibit lead content in polyvinyl chloride pipes, widely used in urban water and wastewater systems, and home plumbing. Efforts are under way to include some lead compounds as substances of high concern in the EU’s REACH chemicals regulation.

The EU’s main manufacturers of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, pipes have voluntarily agreed to eliminate the use of lead as a stabiliser in the manufacturing process by 2015. Some companies could achieve the goal earlier, carrying through pledges first made in 2000 and reiterated at the Rio+20 sustainable development conference last June.

Yet the European industry fears that proposals to expand the list of harmful substances under REACH could harm another sustainability pledge made by the industry – to gradually replace virgin materials with material recycled from old PVC pipes.

EU national representatives are scheduled to discuss expanding the REACH chemicals directive to include 21 lead compounds when they meet next week at the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki. The compounds include those used as PVC stabilisers, but also in batteries, crystal, ceramics, rubber products and fuel additives.

The European PVC industry agreed at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio to reduce its resource footprint by reclaiming 800,000 tonnes of PVC per year by 2020 – compared to the 255,000 the industry achieved in 2010. The VinylPlus project also commits the industry to phase out the use of lead by 2015, and to establish an industry label certifying PVC products as sustainable.

The voluntary commitment comes in the absence of EU regulations on lead stabilisers in PVC pipes despite a history of health concerns over the use of lead, also known by its chemical symbol of Pb.

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