By Andrew Wineke, Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction
Good news for salmon!
A new report from the California Stormwater Quality Association says that copper in urban
stormwater will be cut by 52-62 percent nationwide by 2028.
Why? Because vehicle brake manufacturers, states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement in 2015 to phase out copper in brake pads nationwide in the coming years. That agreement was modeled on Washington's Better Brakes Law.
So why is copper pollution a problem?
Copper is toxic to fish, including salmon, and other aquatic species, affecting their sense of smell and causing other damage. Check out this video from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, which shows juvenile coho salmon responding as the scent of a predator is introduced:
On the top we see the clean tank, without copper. Here, when the juvenile fish sense the predator, they go still, falling to the bottom of the tank to hide - just as they should. In the bottom tank, where copper pollution is present, the fish swim on, ignoring the potential predator and increasing the chances they wind up as fish sticks!
How big a problem is copper coming from vehicle brakes?
An estimated 130,000 pounds of copper enters
Puget Sound each year from brake pads - that's equal to the weight of 24
million pennies or 71 miles of half-inch copper pipe.
That's why we say, look for copper-free brakes and give salmon a break.
According to the report, 44 percent of brake pads sold today already contain less than 0.5 percent copper by weight (a 22 percent reduction since 2011). Those copper levels in new brake pads are expected to fall by 80-99 percent by 2021.
When you buy brakes, you can tell how much copper they contain by looking for the LeafMark. The more leaves that are filled in, the less copper the brakes contain. When all three leaves are filled in, that means the brakes contain less than 0.5 percent copper.
Of course, it takes quite a bit of time for older brakes to be sold, installed, wear down and work their way through stormwater and into sediments, so there is a lag before the cut in copper in new pads shows up in our urban streams. Still, the report predicts that copper in urban runoff will fall by 46-57 percent by 2024 and top out at roughly 52-62 percent by 2028.
Unfortunately, phasing copper out of vehicle brakes doesn't solve the whole problem. As the report shows, there will still be significant amounts of copper getting into urban stormwater from sources like pesticides and copper plumbing. Still, brakes are one of the major sources of copper pollution and 50-60 percent is a huge reduction.
Best of all, those copper reductions will not affect vehicle performance, brake manufacturers say, and the changes have not led to increased consumer costs.
Learn more about Washington's Better Brakes Law at http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/hwtr/betterbrakes.html
You can read the full report from the California Stormwater Quality Association at https://www.casqa.org/sites/default/files/library/technical-reports/estimated_urban_runoff_copper_reductions_resulting_from_brake_pad_copper_use_restrictions_casqa_4-13.pdf