Certification Manipulation

Pamela Gilbert - January 11, 2008

This issue of the Healthy Building News was originally going to discuss the growing confusion over green product standards and certifications, following up on an excellent article in the latest issue of the Environmental Building News. Then we got word of a controversial effort by the PVC industry to weaken Underwriters Laboratories' performance standards for PVC pipes. This case illuminates many of the concerns we intend to raise with regard to trade association manipulation of green product standards and certifications, but at a distance that we think offers readers an informative perspective and context for the issues we face in the green building movement. We asked attorney Pamela Gilbert, formerly Executive Director of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, to explain what is at stake at Underwriters Laboratories (UL). [1] Readers are encouraged to urge the UL not to enact the proposed changes to their PVC pipe standard. -- The Editors

The Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association has requested that Underwriters Laboratories (UL) enact wide ranging revisions to relax UL 1285, the Standard for Safety for Pipe and Couplings, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), for Underground Fire Service. [2]

Currently, section 17 of UL 1285 is clear and straightforward, requiring strength tests to be done from the actual product being certified (i.e. from "machined specimens from the pipe"). The proposed revision to this section, by contrast, would allow the manufacturer to test not the pipe that bears the UL mark but a completely different product made from the same raw materials.

The strength of PVC pipe varies according to processing methods and processing conditions. PVC pipe covered by UL 1285 is typically processed by extrusion. The proposed change is designed to permit manufacturers to take the raw materials of PVC pipe and process them by compression molding, a process that is completely different from the process for the product they sell, then submit this different product for compliance with the tensile-strength requirement. The use of compression molding as the means of processing conservatively adds 150-200 psi of tensile strength to the sample being tested and may add as much as 500 psi. The effect of the proposed revision would be to permit manufacturers to test a product that varies dramatically from the product they supply and that UL certifies.

The consistent feature of this and related changes requested by the industry is to substantially weaken the reliability and safety of PVC pipe bearing the UL mark. In the aggregate, these modifications can only lead in one direction: an increase in failures in the field that translate into a greater number of injuries -- including potentially fatal injuries -- to those handling the pipe, and great expense to taxpayers to repair or replace pipe that fails prematurely. Because this pipe is buried underground, it is expensive to detect and address PVC pipe failures in the field, which is one reason why customers and municipalities insist on buying product that can last for decades and longer.

The industry proponents of this revision have offered no engineering rationale for the change, and there seems to be no basis in either engineering principles or common sense for testing a product in a form that is dramatically different from the product that will actually be certified. Notably, the revision has been couched in terms impenetrable to consumers, who would never suspect that this also lowers the tensile strength requirement by as much as 500 psi and prescribes testing on a product that bears little relation to what they actually will buy.

The mission of Underwriters Laboratories is to ensure that products complying with its standards, such as UL 1285, have been determined to pose minimal hazards to life and property. [3] To this end, UL Standards for Safety are designed to take into consideration the needs and opinions of a wide variety of interests, including consumers, individuals associated with consumer-oriented organizations, academicians, government officials, industrial and commercial users, inspection authorities, and insurance interests.

UL 1285 is currently clear and workable, particularly in its plain requirement that tensile-strength testing be done on the finished product. Customers who buy PVC pipe with the 1285 mark can rest assured that the pipe itself has been tested. UL should decline to enact the proposal, which lacks any sound engineering basis. If adopted, the revisions would make PVC pipe bearing the UL mark less safe, more likely to fail in the field, and more costly to insure, while introducing ambiguity into a standard that is now clear and effective.


Footnotes

[1] Pamela Gilbert is a partner with Cuneo, Gilbert & LaDuca, LLP, a Washington DC based law firm that specializes in consumer protection law.

[2] "UL 1285 Ed. 4 - Proposal Review - Opened 2007-11-01"

[3] See, http://www.ul.com/about/; http://www.ul.com/consumers/; UL 1285 Ed. 4 (April 2, 2001) at preamble


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