May 2023 Vol. 78 No. 5

Editor's Log

Editor's log: Ever gotten sick from smelling wet paint?

Robert Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief 

(UI) — Sewer rehabilitation is critical to the American infrastructure. Leading the way has been long-established cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) technology that essentially paved the road for a variety of modern rehab methods. But in recent years, the process, which has historically used styrene as the curing agent in liners, has come under direct assault for alleged health risks. 

In July 2017, Purdue University’s Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering, claimed his research showed that the CIPP industry was ignoring serious health risks for workers associated with the release of styrene odors/vapors during the installation process. Studies ultimately refuted those findings, largely due to a three-phase research commissioned by NASSCO. Regardless, the association embraced recommendations from the studies to further ensure worker safety. 

Unfortunately, the media has moved into the era of content generators in lieu of journalists, and good news judgment is all too seldom followed. Opportunities abound for these headline-chasing, internet-click producing, content generators to engage in speculation rather than facts. It’s ridiculously easy to be lured into non-existent exposés based on questionable research, especially when the writer is not motivated to see the big picture and create balanced reporting clearly showing both sides of the story. 

Therefore, I actually wasn’t surprised when a major newspaper published an article, fed largely by the Purdue researcher’s suppositions regarding perceived health risks of styrene in CIPP, even though there is ample current evidence to the contrary. This new attack on CIPP appears to be promulgated by the newspaper and perhaps guided by others, including Dr. Whelton’s role as an anti-CIPP crusader. 

The latest assault on reality tries a new approach: ignore worker safety and strive to generate tears in our eyes and pain in our hearts from people suffering alleged negative health reactions by inhaling styrene odors. The story guides the reader to the conclusion that these fumes from CIPP installations are the lone culprit for health issues cited. Of course, virtually all CIPP emissions – by the story’s own admission – fall well within the Center for Disease Control (CDC) designated safety levels for styrene. 

It’s extremely regrettable that anyone, even though extremely rare, has gotten ill from inhaling dissipating styrene fumes. Medial research would be welcome to determine if those who have gotten sick after inhaling styrene fumes became ill directly and exclusively as a result of breathing in noxious fumes. Do these people perhaps have an allergy to the chemical? Or do they have secondary health conditions (known or unknown) that could be set off by styrene? Nobody knows for sure. 

There have been rare incidents where styrene odors have migrated into the bowels of a building or the basement of older homes. Still, even in these incidents, odors were a nuisance, perhaps even nauseating, like wet paint, but not dangerous to overall health. Contractors are – and should be – striving to eliminate any such situations. 

To be sure, pictures of a teenage girl used in the article are heart-wrenching and tales by other suffering individuals are detestable. I would never wish such an illness on anyone – no one would. But until good science and medical research indicate more than a coincidence, the industry is doing an amazing job of managing safe, effective CIPP operations. Manufactured alarms should be ignored in lieu of proven safe operations and common sense that solve and prevent extremely serious health issues due to broken sewers and water pipelines. 

NASSCO has always taken an in-depth and serious examination of all concerns and criticism against the safety of CIPP, specifically styrene emissions. As mentioned earlier, NASSCO commissioned a three-part, in-depth study regarding styrene emissions. Recommendations for improving job-site and community safety were immediately embraced by the association and CIPP industry, but the arbitrary studies largely exonerated CIPP operations when following best practices. 

People may not like the smell of styrene, which is sometimes present around job sites for a short period of time (it’s similar to model cement). But for the 99.99 percent who have never had a health problem following a CIPP lining project in their neighborhood, the odor of styrene is a minor inconvenience in return for protecting and preserving the area’s infrastructure, by preventing festering and extreme health risks from broken or leaking pipes. 

The answer lies in NASSCO’s continuing leadership on this issue. Be open and willing to modify beliefs and embrace procedures as needed by industry and communities to remain healthy. You can’t afford to take chances with people’s lives; NASSCO and the CIPP industry are well aware of that and continue to go the extra mile to ensure safe operations for both its workers and the public health. 

As work continues to rebuild America’s infrastructure and, indeed, the entire world’s eroding infrastructure, the rehabilitation industry will no doubt endeavor to play a critical and essential role in the path forward. UI 

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