First, the good news: There is a faucet that complies with California’s new legal lockdown on the amount of lead contained in faucets sold for sale in the state.
Now, the bad news: The faucet, stainless steel inside and out, wholesales in Europe for $670. The worse news: The pricey product is made-to-order and was never meant to be mass-produced. The worst news: American plumbing manufacturers say they won’t have anything that comes close to meeting the law when it goes into effect in 2010.
The Plumbing Manufacturers Institute, along with other opponents of the lead limits such as the California Association of Local Building Officials and the California Building Industry Association, warned legislators of just such a dilemma throughout last year’s legislative session.
“This was an emotional as well as a political issue,” said Barbara C. Higgens, executive director of PMI. “The other side needs to know we weren’t lying when we said there were no viable faucets currently on the market nor would there be a viable alloy by 2010 that would comply with the new law.”
PMI discovered the unlikely European alternative through a survey sent to more than 40 attendees of a joint roundtable meeting held along with the Copper Development Association last December. Most notably, the roundtable included presentations by executives of the American Foundry Society and the Non-Ferrous Founders’ Society.
“We thought it was in good faith to bring together the plumbing and foundry industries,” she added. “That way everyone could see that there was no time to develop a new alloy and that alloy alternatives that exist today simply can’t work given the mechanical demands of a faucet.”
Bismuth, for example, was one such alloy that proponents of the legislation presented as a viable alternative to leaded brass used for faucets. However, the American Foundry Society had had its own meeting on the matter last fall and raised a couple of troublesome concerns. For one thing, the society doubted that there was enough bismuth mined around the world to replace the amount of brass used for the United States faucet market. Bismuth is not economical to mine as a primary product. Rather, it is usually produced as a byproduct of the processing of other metal ores - especially, ironically enough, lead.
Besides the doubtful supply was the limited lifespan of products using bismuth alloys. The society also said that most manufacturers using bismuth were disappointed to find that cracks developed in the product over just a one-to-five-year period. Even the CDA, which was one the plumbing industry’s earliest proponents of bismuth alloys, did not support the California law, particularly given the size of market that manufacturers would have to automatically contend with in a short amount of time.
Back To The Future: In case you’re wondering why bismuth became the much-mentioned alternative, it helps to go back and see how the legislation got its start. The key initiator of the bill was the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which had earlier investigated low-lead alloys for its own distribution components that carried the water from treatment plant to water meter. The utility had success with using bismuth alloys, in particularly, water meters.
“The Schwarzenegger administration is now discovering that implementing AB 1953, the bill that sets a new standard for lead content in potable water, will be more difficult and a lot more expensive than originally believed when the governor signed the measure last October,” the CBIA’s Governmental Affairs Department summed up in a January newsletter.
PMI contends there are other areas of concerns about the bill. For example, how the law will be enforced remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that the bill uses a convoluted formula for determining the amount of lead a faucet contains.
“One of our members demonstrated that you’d have to basically destroy the faucet first in order to figure out how much lead its different parts may or may not be leaching lead,” Higgens said.
On the distribution side, Higgens added that the bill contains no provisions for existing inventory. And while 2010 is just three years away, manufacturers would have to be selling an alternative by 2009 - which gives the industry that much less time to address the issue.
Higgens does hold out hope for, at a minimum, an extension of time after 2010. “The governor does have some personal incentive in rectifying this law since right now it will go into effect during his current term.”