Brake pedalThere are approximately 5.8 million cars, trucks and buses registered in Washington and driving its roads and highways. Each time one of those drivers hits the brakes, a bit of dust grinds off the brake pad. In most cases, that dust carries copper and other metals that over time get washed by stormwater into local streams, lakes, and the sea.

Lawmakers in Washington and California are considering bans on copper-containing brake pads, but they’re moving at a pace matching I-5 traffic at rush hour. Yet cutting this source of copper seems like such a smart, straightforward policy decision. Here’s why:

  1. The evidence of environmental harm is clear. Copper, even at really low levels, is dangerous to fish and other aquatic life. In salmon, it deadens their noses, eliminating a key sense used for finding food and mates and avoiding predators.
  2. Brake pads are a prime source of copper found in waterways.A study in San Francisco found that brake pads were second only to pesticides as a source of copper getting into local waterways. Approximately 70,000 pounds of copper wash into Puget Sound each year along with stormwater, according to state figures.
  3. Non-copper alternatives exist. Researchers say they’re safe and already in use (see “How safe are brake pads that don’t contain copper?” in this FAQ sheet from California’s Brake Pad Alliance).
  4. It’ll save money. It’s cheaper and easier to prevent copper from getting into the environment in the first place than it is to clean it up later. Copper dissolves in water and is tough to get back out, plus most of the stormwater runs into bodies of water and aquifers without any treatment.

Considering that millions of dollars are being spent every year in Washington alone to clean up and control polluted stormwater, why aren’t the lawmakers hustling to get this legislation through?

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  • All the way back in 1995, California figured out that copper had to go. Last year lawmakers there proposed rules to reduce copper in brake pads, but dropped the effort in light of the state’s economic woes and challenges associated with the department that would oversee the rules. Leaders promised to return to it this year. So far, it appears that they haven’t picked up the issue again.

    Washington lawmakers right now are considering legislation (House Bill 3018 and Senate Bill 6557) to get the copper out. The Senate bill, which was approved by an environmental committee and had a hearing on Monday in another committee, would:

    • By Jan. 1, 2014, limit asbestos, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury to trace amounts in brake pads.
    • By Dec. 1, 2015, have the Department of Ecology review the risks of alternative brake pad material.
    • By Jan. 1, 2021, limit copper to 5 percent or less.
    • By Jan. 1, 2025, limit copper to 0.5 percent or less, provided a safe alternative is found.

    The Washington measure has support from the Department of Ecology and the Puget Sound Partnership, the agency overseeing the restoration of Puget Sound.

    Why is this taking so long? Obviously, brake safety is a huge concern, and goodness knows that Toyota’s brake issues—while not related to brake-pad manufacture—might give a few lawmakers pause. The folks at the Brake Pad Partnership explain the scope of this sort of legislation:

    Brakes containing copper are currently widely used on new vehicles. Eliminating any intentional use of copper in these brakes while meeting the auto companies’ strong performance standards will be revolutionary for the brake industry…Given the amount of work involved…brake manufacturers will begin product development efforts to reach the 0.5 percent copper standard immediately.

    Eleven years still seems like a long time to wait for a reduction in copper levels in brake pads. But given the scope of the change, and the fact that Washington is now out in front on this matter—ahead of California and thus leading the nation—the legislation is sounding better and better.


    Brake pedal photo courtesy of Flickr user Kaptain Kobold under a Creative Commons license.