BY BOB MIODONSKI PUBLISHER AND EDITORIAL DIRECTOR
TO PARAPHRASE a certain former governor of California, who famously remarked during a 1980 presidential debate:
"Well, there you go again ..."
Only two months ago in this space, we told you that a California bill that would lower flushing requirements for toilets in that state to 1.3 gal. per flush and urinals to 0.5 gal. is a bad idea. We emphasized our commitment to water conservation and other environmentally friendly initiatives, yet we took exception to the proposed legislation for three specific reasons: water efficiency is a national concern, not one to be resolved by a single state; producing different plumbing fixtures for use in different states is costly and impractical; and technology issues must be resolved before making more efficient fixtures mandatory.
The California Assembly now is considering another bill that takes on the plumbing industry. This one would lower the amount of lead used in faucets and fittings from 4% to 0.25% by Jan. 1, 2010. As with the bill just mentioned, the state's proposed lead legislation has its problems and should not be made into law.
Where federal law mandates the amount of water that a toilet or urinal can flush, California and other states can set their own lead levels for faucets and fittings. Because they can, however, doesn't make it a good idea that they should. The questions would remain on the cost and practicality of producing different plumbing products for California and the rest of the nation, and technology is an even bigger concern here than it is with water-efficient fixtures.
In fact, manufacturers say they cannot foresee faucets that meet the strict requirements of California AB 1953. The proposal also would affect fittings, valves and backflow preventers now on the market.
Bismuth, the alloy some see as an alternative to lead, has limitations that manufacturers described to me at least a dozen years ago. They experienced problems machining bismuth-containing brasses, which cannot be produced as rod and bar products. These brasses only can be manufactured as castings.
The Copper Development Association, which was involved in the initial development of bismuth brass alloys and describes itself as a strong advocate of bismuth brass, told California legislators that "it is unwise to force the use of a material where it is not appropriate."
What is most bothersome to associations such as CDA and the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute as well as individual manufacturers is that AB 1953 appears to be so arbitrary in setting its lead limit at 0.25%. PMI calls the mathematical equation used to reach the 0.25% figure "convoluted" with no basis in scientific analysis.
A better idea is to rely on performance-based standards such as NSF 61, which is already in the California Plumbing Code. NSF 61 considers chemical composition, product use, water contact surface area, manufacturing processes and all contaminants potentially leaching from plumbing products. Since it was first written in 1988, NSF 61 has shown itself to be an effective way to lower lead in plumbing systems.
The bill ignores the progress made by the plumbing industry on the lead issue. In the past decade, PMI points out, lead levels have been reduced to almost immeasurable levels thanks to advances in materials and manufacturing processes. Further, PMI cites Centers for Disease Control data that last year 1.6% of children ages 1 to 5 had blood lead levels higher than acceptable — an almost 40% drop from the early 1990s.
Lead will continue to be an emotional and political issue primarily because of the impact that it can have on children. As plumbing contractors who protect the health and welfare of the nation, you need to keep up to date with the facts on lead so that you can discuss them with your customers when they voice their concerns.
While AB 1953 is a flawed piece of legislation, it will not be the last attempt by lawmakers to address lead in plumbing products. The plumbing industry, particularly manufacturers, must continue the progress that's been made in researching new materials and improving production processes.