EDITORIAL: California's Lead Reduction Fiasco
Someone once commented that there are two things one should never watch being made - sausage and legislation. With California's Assembly Bill 1953, the analogy gets even less appetizing. Imagine sausage being made with rancid meat.
AB1953 proposes to reduce lead content in all plumbing pipe, fittings and fixtures to 0.25%, down from current standards of 8% (for pipe and fittings) and 4% (for plumbing fittings and fixtures). How wrongheaded is this effort? Let us count the ways.
1. The bill serves no useful purpose.Proponents say lead levels in children's blood are on the increase. But the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute cites studies done by the Centers for Disease Control showing a 40% reduction in childhood lead levels since the early 1990s.
PMI says the decrease reflects the plumbing industry's efforts to reduce children's exposure to lead. I disagree with their interpretation. It's unlikely that plumbing products ever contributed measurable amounts of lead to tiny bloodstreams. The decline more likely stems from cleaner auto emissions and a diminishing stock of old housing with lead-based paint.
Anyway, we do agree that AB1953 is a pointless non-solution to a problem that does not exist. I'm told its main impetus came from the water utility industry, which is seeking a scapegoat for lead leaching from aging water distribution infrastructure. Californians breathe air super-saturated with environmental hysteria. Whisper “lead” in the same breath with “children” and legislators get jumpy. From there it's easy to goad them into taking it out on greedy capitalists who make money in the oh so unfashionable business of manufacturing.
Making it even more pointless is the existence of NSF/ANSI Standard 61 mandating low lead levels for all plumbing products. The California Plumbing Code requires all plumbing products to comply with NSF 61, as does virtually every other jurisdiction in the country. Various public health and toxicology experts, along with industry personnel, had a hand in developing NSF 61.
California Assembly creatures would have us believe they are wiser in the ways of protecting public health than all those experts.
2. The bill is based on misinformation.Besides misrepresenting CDC data, proponents argued that manufacturing alternatives exist to meet the proposed 0.25% standard and some plumbing products already comply. It took letters from executives of the companies whose products were cited to set the Assembly straight. Plumbing manufacturers are virtually unanimous in saying no existing technology can meet the proposed standard.
Moreover, this bill's trek through the California legislature has been accompanied by procedural shenanigans. Some opposition letters were excluded from the record, but a late hour letter of support for the bill was allowed after the fact. That came from a metal trade group not involved with any of the scientific discussions - and against the wishes of some members who supply materials that go into plumbing products.
3. The bill is scientifically unsound.According to PMI, the formula used to achieve the 0.25% lead content level is “arbitrary, unenforceable and confusing.”
“This bill would actually preclude use of some of the safest products available today,” said PMI Executive Director Barb Higgens.
4. Costs are wildly out of line with benefits.This bill would prohibit virtually all faucets, valves and backflow preventers currently on the market, with no viable alternatives in sight. PMI estimates industry-wide compliance costs would total more than $81 million for retooling and administration - but that's not including the unknown material costs of lead alloy alternatives. Material currently comprises about 60% of manufacturing costs. Nobody has an inkling of what alternatives might be needed and what they might cost, but it's almost certain they'd be substantially higher than today's readily available alloys.
And for what in return? A dramatic lowering of already miniscule lead levels in plumbing products, for which there is not a speck of evidence of harm to human health.
5. It smells bad even to Assembly members.Reportedly, some Assembly members who voted in favor of the bill were livid about being misled. The bill got revised on its journey through the California Senate, where for a while it was held “in suspense,” meaning some senators tried to put it to death. Alas, just as we go to press, word comes that the bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on a straight party line vote - all Democrats voting “aye” and all Republicans “naye.” It now goes to the Senate floor, and nobody knows what will happen there.
When rotten meat is discovered in a sausage factory, prudence requires shutting down the production line. That's what Californians ought to do with this rancid piece of legislation. <<
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