Reduction of lead in plumbing products
A California law further limiting the amount of lead in pipes and other plumbing products carrying water for human consumption is causing much concern in the United States plumbing manufacturing industry and could ultimately affect the global industry.
Assembly Bill 1953 (AB1953), which was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on 30 September 2006, requires a reduction in the lead content of such products, including faucets, from 8% to 0.25% by the start of 2010.
It is claimed that there are no faucets on the market meeting these 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. There are also concerns that the new law will mean inferior products, increased costs and prices.
Plumbing Manufacturers Institute executive director Barbara Higgens says faucet manufacturers, with a coalition of 17 diverse organizations, are dismayed at the law.
“In effect, the bill will make present-day faucets illegal in the state of California and create product shortages leading to building stoppages and job losses,” she says.
“There is no need for this law, which ignores proven performance-based health-effect Standards, and instead prescribes the material content of plumbing products such as faucets with no regard to functionality, quality, durability or, for that matter, availability.
While some specialised materials are ideal for use in simple components (water meters and ironically those products now exempted by the law), these alloys are not robust enough for use in complicated mechanical devices such as faucets.
“Materials used in faucets today are highly regulated nationally through rigorous, ongoing performance testing under NSF 61, which evaluates the quality of the water coming out of the faucet and subsequently into consumers. As there is no evidence of any issues in California related to elevated lead levels in the water, it became evident early on that the bill was politically motivated and used as a diversionary tactic by the California water utility that authored the bill. Products under the utility’s purview – which contain the highest lead content of any components in the delivery system and are the least regulated – are exempted from the law.”
Higgens believes the law is flawed and characterised by several myths, including that faucets are the main contributors of lead in drinking water.
“In fact, the opposite is true. Over the past decade, lead levels have been reduced to nearly immeasurable amounts due to advances in materials and manufacturing processes. Aging infrastructure, including pipe and plumbing system components, are the main contributors of trace amounts of lead in the water supply.
“Another myth is that bismuth is a viable alternative alloy. In reality, bismuth-containing brasses can be manufactured only as castings. They cannot be forged and cannot be produced as rod and bar products for machined components. Bismuth alloys are limited in use and application due to limitations in manufacturing, durability, strength and ability to apply surface finishes.”
Higgens says bismuth and selenium are not acceptable for all applications in the manufacture of faucets. The problem is not just in relation to availability – durability is a critical ongoing issue.
“Faucets are complex mechanical devices comprised of many components and materials. Numerous factors need to be addressed, including corrosion, wear, vandal resistance, adherence of surface finishes, precision, ease and consistency of manufacturing, and impact on health and safety.”
Lead is added to alloys used in the manufacture of faucets to assist machining and reduce porosity, which prevents the product from leaking.
The Non-Ferrous Founders’ Society (NFFS) in the US represents the metal suppliers for non-ferrous foundries, including brass and bronze ingot manufacturers that supply most of the alloyed ingot to the plumbing manufacturing industry.
NFFS executive director James Mallory says that in relation to the requirements of AB1953, alternative alloys might not be available in sufficient quantities to replace all lead-bearing alloys.
“Alternative alloys are up to three times more costly than plumbing brass materials, and would only increase in cost as supplies become more scarce,” he says.
“Also, alternative alloys may present other environmental and health concerns, which alone should caution against mandating their exclusive use until more scientific data becomes available.”
“This new law is particularly disappointing in that it is not based on any scientific consideration of the health effects of water quality in California, and another concern is the lack of enforcement. The lead content of a faucet cannot be determined by visual inspection, only by destructive testing. Proponents of the bill did not consider its technological and economic impacts – it does appear that it was purely a political decision.
“NFFS will be leading a team looking into some of the supply and demand issues surrounding non-leaded alloys. How much plumbing brass is sold in California annually? Is enough bismuth being produced globally to replace all lead in plumbing brass if necessary? And what about the impacts on the scrap-metal market? These are the sort of supply and demand issues that clearly haven’t even been considered, but need to be.”
The new law has also not been well received by NSF International, the independent, not-for-profit organization dealing with Standards, testing and certification that developed NSF/ANSI Standard 61.
Senior director of regulatory affairs Stan Hazan says the organization supports the goals of reducing human exposure to lead and other contaminants that may derive from water supply products. However, it opposes the adoption of prescriptive, content-based requirements.
“NSF feels strongly that any legislation controlling water supply products must be performance-based,” Hazan says.
“In other words, products must demonstrate that they contribute less than the permissible contaminant levels through accredited formulation review and testing, using standardised methods.
“NSF/ANSI Standard 61 is a performance-based approach that considers chemical composition, product use, water contact surface area and manufacturing processes. It was developed in 1988 at the request of the US Environment Protection Agency and has been relied on since as the national health-based Standard for products that contact drinking water. Virtually every State has legislation, regulation, code or policy requiring compliance with NSF/ANSI Standard 61 for products in public water supplies or plumbing systems.
“Any legislation controlling such products should be based on the national Standard that addresses lead and all other chemicals, because lead is not the only chemical that can migrate from plumbing devices. Given the global nature of plumbing device production and distribution, it is impractical to impose a single State’s requirement that establishes content requirements for only one chemical contaminant.”
NSF/ANSI Standard 61 is overseen by the NSF Drinking Water Additives Committee, comprised of equal representation from the regulatory community, the manufacturing industry and user groups. The American National Standards Institute accredits NSF Standards development procedures to ensure that a balanced group of stakeholders operates in an open process.
Michael Briggs of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) testing and services division in California does not believe the answer to lead in drinking water is mandating a prescriptive level on the surface of a faucet.
“I lean more towards a performance-based Standard, and ANSI/NSF 61 is a good start,” he says.
“Lead has been an issue for some time, especially in relation to effects on the nervous system of developing children. Now that lead is no longer found in paint and gasoline, many in the regulatory system are looking at other sources of lead, and plumbing has been identified.
“I know of no study used to correlate serum lead and lead intake from drinking water, but there is a huge push politically to further minimise lead exposure.”
If the new law is impractical, and perhaps unworkable as many claim, where to next? Barbara Higgens says options have to be explored, and one could be to seek a repeal of the bill, which would be a big task.
“No existing faucets comply with the requirements of the bill. Home builders in California are confused and concerned, and manufacturers are very nervous about what the future may hold.
“There are also implications for the rest of the US. Some interpretations of the bill even extend to a possible ban on products travelling through California. Other States are closely watching the situation in California, so there is a need to get the message out more broadly about the ramifications.”