Lead laws affect faucets
In September 2006, a new law that limits the amount of lead in faucets and other plumbing components to 0.25% was passed in California with a deadline for compliance of 1 January 2010.
The State of California is the 10th largest economy in the world, so most brands of faucet from around the globe find their way into this market. The move by California is also seen as a forerunner to uniform legislation throughout the United States and perhaps in other countries. Various concerns were raised by faucet manufacturers and other stakeholders about the practicality of the AB 1953 law.
It was claimed that no faucets on the market met the new requirements, and copper-based alloys such as bismuth and selenium – which may be a replacement for lead – are unlikely to be available in the necessary quantities.
Concern was also expressed that the new law would mean inferior products and increased costs and prices.
In this article we provide an update on the latest developments in relation to this important issue.
Executive director of the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute (PMI) Barbara Higgens says the organization still believes that performance is the best way of evaluating the quality and safety of faucets. However, now that AB 1953 has been signed into law, PMI members are dedicated to complying with it.
“In fact, we have proposed a companion bill – SB 651 – to strengthen the new law by clarifying some terms and definitions and to include a requirement for third party certification and enforcement,” she says.
“This is to ensure that all manufacturers comply with the requirements.
“Other States, including Massachusetts and Vermont, are considering their own iteration of the lead-reduction bill.
“PMI directors and members are working on model legislation of our own to encourage the States to follow a template so there is uniformity in their laws. We hope this is introduced in States considering legislation, and ultimately nationally.
“Although there have been claims that some European faucets contain lower levels of lead, none have come to our attention. To date, we are not aware of any manufacturer claiming to already meet AB 1953, with the exception of products made from materials like stainless steel.
“PMI manufacturing company members are dedicated to addressing health, safety and environmental concerns. This group is always looking for product innovation, including lowering lead content, and it has been exploring options long before the new law in California.
“However, California’s tight compliance deadline has put additional pressure on our manufacturers to find robust, alternative alloys quickly, leaving little time for field testing. We will comply with the law and work to ensure that all players do the same, but third party certification and enforcement are critical.”
NSF International is an independent, non-profit organization that certifies products and writes Standards for food, water and consumer goods. Its codes and regulatory manager, Jeremy Brown, says Standard 61: Drinking Water System Components – Health Effects has been updated to further protect the public from exposure to lead.
The Standard has an implementation date of 1 July 2012, which was established to give industry enough time to design and produce products from alternative materials to comply with the revised NSF Standard and other physical performance Standards.
“At this time there is no clear regulatory mechanism by which the requirements of AB 1953 will be enforced and no clear Standards by which to evaluate or demonstrate product compliance,” Brown says.
“So there is a possibility that litigation could become the enforcement.
“The NSF Lead Task Group, in an attempt to standardize product evaluation, is grappling with several matters, including how to determine the lead content of materials, and how to deal with coatings and liners.
“It is also examining marking requirements, and gaining assurance that the final requirements are acceptable to the regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over installations of products requiring compliance with the California law.”
Director of special services at the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), Dave Viola, says that as the debate continues on how best to deal with enforcement, IAPMO R&T has implemented a voluntary program that allows customers the option of having their products third party certified as compliant with the California law, or the law in any other State.
“An overarching enforcement mechanism is needed to create a level playing field for manufacturers and increase confidence that the law is being complied with,” he says.
“At best, the future is uncertain as the faucet industry continues its search for a solution that allows products to comply with the California law.”
According to executive director of the Non-Ferrous Founders Society (NFFS) Jim Mallory, work has continued on several fronts to help US faucet manufacturers and their foundry suppliers to meet the new California law.
“Despite claims to the contrary by the law’s sponsors, there is no simple solution readily available,” he says.
“Seven different committees have been established to look at various questions and materials.
“The one that NFFS and I are specifically involved with is on bismuth availability and material costs. Our group has also been trying to look at what effect switching to bismuth alloys would have on the available supply of copper scrap metal.
“Other issues being studied include castability of various no-lead alloys, cost versus manufacturing yield, platability issues, and machinability questions.
“Our committee has had quite a difficult time trying to get any reliable data on the total current global production of bismuth. There are very few mines supplying it. One of those is in China, but the operators will not provide any information on their mining capacity or production rates.
“What we have seen in relation to China is a suggestion that the mines have been controlling their export quantities to force bismuth prices up. Moreover, Sidech, a leading European source for bismuth, has yet to even acknowledge our committee’s repeated requests for information and assistance.
“What estimates we have been able to gather put annual global production between 6,000 and 8,000 tons, although one source in Canada says supply capacity may be 50% higher than that.
“Our committee has been trying to estimate how much the US demand for bismuth might increase if all leaded brass alloys were to be replaced by bismuth. One estimate is that it will at least double.
“Even the US Geological Survey admits that although the cost of bismuth is roughly 10 times that of lead, there may be a concern about meeting the demand if it were to become necessary to use bismuth in all current lead applications.
“We have been working on this project for nearly 18 months but keep putting off the writing of a paper in the hope that better data becomes available. Improved data would allow us to more accurately forecast whether the production sources could handle any level of increased demand.
“The one factor we are confident of at this point is that the price of bismuth, which has already gone up 400% under current demand, would probably skyrocket.”
Mallory says there are still industry concerns regarding enforcement of the new law in California, and even proponents of the regulation are uncertain as to how it will be implemented.
“The lead content of a faucet cannot be determined by visual inspection or paperwork alone. One proposal would put the burden and the cost of proving compliance on companies trying to sell products in California.
“There are also questions concerning the percentage of imported faucets in the market – it may be as high as 85% of total faucet sales.
“Exactly how California could test imported products to ensure their compliance with the law has yet to be determined. However, California lawmakers continue to urge domestic manufacturers not to wait for such questions to be answered before removing lead from their products.
“Meanwhile, the clock is ticking – loudly.
“Thus far, California is the only State that has enacted such restrictive content-based legislation. The industry’s fear is that others may soon follow, or a similar law may be enacted by Congress on a national level.”
WPR did try to host a conference in Shanghai on this important issue and other plumbing supply matters. Unfortunately, there was not enough support.
We now hope there won’t be a repeat of a ‘Mattel toy’ type action in which Chinese suppliers argued they were not sufficiently informed of the lead issue in children’s toys – and were exonerated for failing to meet product safety requirements.