Brace yourself for an ironic twist to California’s lead law.

The Wizard of Oz popped into my daydreams as I sat in on a session at the recent Water Quality Association’s 2009 Mid-Year Leadership Conference in suburban Chicago. Of particular interest was a Sept. 17 meeting of WQA’s Channel Sections, in which participants discussed the Jan. 1, 2010 implementation of California’s AB 1953 law mandating ultra-low lead levels for all products and components that come in contact with potable water.

WQA, whose membership makes or sells water treatment devices, is a latecomer to this issue. They are just now dealing with questions plumbing manufacturers addressed more than three years ago when AB 1953 was first passed. That’s because it didn’t dawn on them until relatively recently that the law would even apply to their drinking water treatment units (DWTUs), which contain few lead-bearing parts and are not specifically cited by AB 1953. WQA’s technical director had been trying to get clarification from the California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) as to whether the law would apply to them, and if so how the members could get their products certified. His quest, like that of poor Dorothy seeking her way back to Kansas, had a simple goal fraught with complications along the way.

The first answer was yes, they would have to comply because “all products are game” - the reported response of a California bureaucrat who I imagined to be a close relative of the Wicked Witch of the West. WQA members had to think hard before identifying certain brass fittings as about the only lead-containing component in their products, whose water interfaces are typically made of plastic. One person pointed out that some plastics are made with lead stabilizers. Shhh, several members simultaneously admonished him.

The regulators remained silent about the compliance question, however. WQA Technical Director Joseph Harrison pointed out in a letter to the DTSC that because of customized designs and installations, many DWTUs “sold and used in California do not carry ANSI-accredited certifications.” Not that this would make any difference, since even being certified to ANSI/NSF 61, the gold standard for water quality, does not constitute compliance with AB 1953. As to why not, only the wise and wonderful Wizard of Oz can explain. Just follow the Yellow Brick Road.

DTSC personnel lacked sufficient knowledge (I’m conjuring brainless Scarecrow here) to answer the certification question. Nor did anybody have the heart (Tin Man) to pursue it further, or the courage (Cowardly Lion) to give a definitive ruling. So, a mere three and a half months before the law was to take effect, WQA members remained confused about how to get home.

Someone pondered out loud how many “tens of thousands of manhours we as an industry have devoted to this issue.” Good question. If WQA’s executives, engineers, technicians, marketing people, secretaries and so on had spent tens of thousands of hours trying to solve the puzzles of AB 1953, their counterparts on the plumbing side - being more numerous, specifically targeted and working at it longer - must’ve spent hundreds of thousands of manhours, plus tens of millions of dollars, on developing products that comply and figuring out the compliance angles. All of these resources were of course subtracted from activities that contribute actual value.

Ah, but one must weigh this expense against the benefits of AB 1953 in preventing all the harm done by plumbing products built with constituent parts containing up to 8% lead under the old standard. Give California’s legislators and regulators unlimited time and money and they might be able to produce at least one addled brain that would stand as evidence of the need for their new law. For now, just accept that their intentions are as pure as Good Witch Glinda’s.

An ultimate irony leaked out at the WQA session that no doubt will be a howler to those of you who devoted some of those hundreds of thousands of manhours to AB 1953.

We all know about the huge budget deficits and fiscal crisis facing California’s state government. The state is being forced to make drastic cuts in even essential public services such as schools, police and fire departments. One participant told the audience of a conversation with a California public health bureaucrat who told him that given the state’s predicament, “There’s no money for testing (product compliance with AB 1953).” 

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.