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California checks for compliance with its first round of product testing
In July 2011, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) issued its first annual report on plumbing products sampled and tested for lead concentrations in 2010. All drinking water faucets that were sampled and tested were reported to comply with the state’s new low-lead law.
California’s low-lead legislation was signed into law in September 2006 and took effect in January 2010. It guided the way for the federal Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which was signed into law in January 2011 and will take effect in 2014. Both the California and federal laws require the lead content for pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures have a weighted average of no more than 0.25% with respect to the wetted surfaces. This percentage is a significant reduction from the previously allowable 8% limit under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Most drinking water faucets are made from brass, a mix of copper, zinc and a minute amount of lead. Lead seals microscopic cracks that occur between the copper and zinc crystals as they cool, and provides the malleability for brass to be forged and converted into the machined components that are vital parts of every faucet.
In recent years, a number of brass alloys have largely replaced the leaded brass in faucets. These materials include bismuth, silicon, selenium and phosphorous, all of which provide different material properties depending on the amount used and the processing method.
Testing for the First Time
For its first year, DTSC selected 15 distinct plumbing products intended for potable water use. These were collected between April and May 2010 from large retail locations, small or independent retailers and the Internet. In most cases, triplicate samples were obtained for a total of 44 plumbing samples, which included 301 individual components for analysis. California law requires the lead content of a plumbing product exposed to water be factored into the weighted average.
DTSC notified manufacturers and distributors of products it sampled and provided them the results. The final results were:
Several of the retailers were surprised at the suppliers’ inaccuracies when assuring that their plumbing products meet state standards. The report also noted that some retailers and manufacturers, aware of public concerns about lead in consumer products, have indicated they will investigate their supply chains to find plumbing products that meet standards.
Aging infrastructure, including pipe and plumbing system components, is the main contributor of trace amounts of lead in U.S. water. Many of the buildings constructed prior to the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes. Some major cities have 100% lead piping bringing water from utilities to buildings and their occupants. A thin biofilm has developed over the decades to coat lead piping, preventing dangerous levels of lead from entering the drinking water system.
Legislation to upgrade the nation’s lead pipes is the next step to protect the public from exposure to lead in drinking water. Such a task will require billions of dollars over many decades. In the meantime, the best protection for the public is the ongoing testing and monitoring of its drinking water and the purchase of certified plumbing products.