The First Year of Low Lead

Oct. 26, 2011
California checks for compliance with its first round of product testing

About the author: Jerry Desmond, Jr. is West Coast consultant for Plumbing Manufacturers Intl. Desmond can be reached at [email protected] or 847.481.5500.


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.

Leveling the Playing Field

Fairness in compliance and enforcement was a top concern during formation of the low-lead legislation. To help clarify the situation, Plumbing Manufacturers Intl. (PMI), then known as Plumbing Manufacturers Institute, worked with the California State Legislature in 2008 to enact two amendments to help ensure a level playing field to achieve the intended consumer safety goals.

One requires all pipes, fittings, fixtures, solder or flux to be certified for compliance with this standard by an independent third party accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The second requires DTSC to conduct annual monitoring and testing to evaluate compliance.

PMI worked with DTSC to develop an easily understood testing and evaluation methodology consistent with ANSI-approved third-party methods. Under the approved protocol, DTSC may select up to 75 drinking water product samples from locations that are readily accessible to the public. This includes procuring products from store shelves and ordering products online.

PMI also worked with DTSC to provide the department with a list of known company personnel contacts to facilitate communication between DTSC and the manufacturer of a pulled product. This enabled DTSC to contact the correct individual and initiate a dialogue about the test results. The final results are publicly available on the DTSC website and are transmitted in an annual report to the California Department of Public Health.

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:

  • 100% of the faucets tested were in compliance.
  • 67% of the valves tested were in compliance.
  • 50% of the pipes and fittings tested were in compliance.

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.

Low Lead Across the Nation

Striving for harmonization with requirements across the U.S., PMI has shared California’s template with other jurisdictions. Vermont has similar lead requirements, which took effect in January 2010, and Maryland will begin enforcing the same requirements in 2012. In Louisiana, legislation requiring the same weighted-average content limits has passed the state house of representatives and is moving through the state senate. The legislation would be effective in 2013 if it passes.

Regardless of where one lives in the country, or whether a low-lead law has gone into effect, DTSC’s report cautioned: “Lead in drinking water results, in part, from corrosion of household plumbing systems. The amount of lead in drinking water depends on plumbing materials, but also depends on the types and amounts of minerals in the water, how long the water stays in the pipes, the amount of wear in the pipes, the water’s acidity and its temperature. It is important to emphasize that the lead content of end-point devices is only one factor that may affect the lead content in tap water.”

Plumbing product manufacturers ensure the safety and performance of their products primarily through compliance with enhanced industry performance standards. In recent years, many plumbing products for potable water use were voluntarily manufactured with a lead content well under the maximum level. They also meet the lead-leaching requirements of NSF/ANSI Standard 61, which focuses on the performance, not the material composition, of the components in drinking water systems. Updated at least once per year, Standard 61 is maintained through a dynamic process involving a range of third-party experts, including regulators, academics, health officials, toxicologists and industry stakeholders.

Aging Effects

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.

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