Copper and the Brake Pad Partnership

November 5, 2010


NEW YORK, NY— This year, two states passed laws mandating a reduction in the amount of copper used in automotive brake pads. The State of Washington signed SB 6557 into law in March, and California followed in September with SB 346. The conclusions that led to the legislation were arrived at by the Brake Pad Partnership, a cooperative effort between the auto industry, brake pad manufacturers, environmental groups, stormwater regulatory agencies and coastal cities.

Bob Weed, Vice President of Original Equipment Manufacturing for the Copper Development Association (CDA), says the association supports the conclusion of the Partnership. "We believe in sustainable practices and being good stewards of our products," he says. "Even before the Partnership was formed, our scientists were very active with Sustainable Conservation and in the studies that were done." He notes that copper is an important, naturally occurring element in bays, streams and oceans, adding, "What we are concerned about is when human activity contributes levels beyond what would be healthy in the aquatic environment."

After working together over a 15-year period, the Partnership agreed to phase out copper from brake pads in those two states through the legislative process. The California group Sustainable Conservation was part of the Partnership. According to their website, "The group persisted in working toward a version of the bill that would protect clean water for aquatic species; meet cities' regulatory deadlines; and give the industry the time and flexibility they needed to develop, test and produce alternative brake pad materials. The result was a bill that all of the stakeholders and large bipartisan majorities in the Legislature actively supported." J. Stacey Sullivan, the organization's Policy Director, says, "The brake manufacturing industry was involved from the get-go. They wanted to get the real data and readily agreed to accept what came out of the studies as long as they knew that the right protocols were being followed."

Curt Augustine, Director of Policy and Government Affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association of 12 automakers, says that a critical part of the process occurred as various stakeholders educated each other on the specifics of what was at stake. "The auto industry representatives learned about the science behind the environmental concerns and how much copper is in stormwater runoff, and the environmental and water experts learned about the timeframes required to change and implement new automotive designs. We ended up supporting the bill. It's putting some burdens on the automotive industry and we accept that, but overall we thought it was a fair balance for the concerns of the industry and our customers, as well as the environmental issues."

The Issue Behind the Bills

In the early 1990s, cities south of San Francisco were having trouble meeting Clean Water Act requirements to reduce copper in urban runoff flowing into San Francisco Bay. Preliminary studies indicated that brake pads were a significant source of copper in that runoff. Tiny amounts of copper fall onto the streets and parking lots every time drivers step on their brakes. Subsequent studies indicate that copper from brake pads accounts for anywhere from 35 to 60 percent of copper in California's urban watershed run-off.

Other studies centering on this issue have been conducted by groups not directly involved with the Partnership. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle conducted some of the original studies. A Fox News article from April, 2010 says, "Researchers have yet to document any instances in nature of copper from urban runoff causing widespread problems for aquatic life." Nonetheless, the possibility of harmful environmental effects led to the drafting of the legislation. The CDA and ICA are currently involved in research evaluating the data of the various studies.

The Essentiality of Copper

It's important to note that copper is not intrinsically harmful to the environment, says Dr. Robert Dwyer, Assistant Director for Environmental at the International Copper Association (ICA). "On the contrary, it's an essential element. If you look at the ingredients on a multivitamin bottle, you'll find it, just like you'll find iron. In fact, most of the health problems and many of the environmental issues associated with copper are due to deficiency," adds Dwyer.

Joe Gorsuch, the CDA's Manager of Health & Environmental Sciences, says, "Copper is vital to the health of both plants and animals. Frequently, it is added as a feed supplement to enable proper and healthy growth of livestock. In certain forms and amounts, however, any substance can be harmful."

The Search for Alternatives

Ultimately, the greatest impact of the Partnership's conclusions is on the automotive industry, because finding an alternative to copper rests on their shoulders. Curt Augustine says copper's unique qualities are not easy to replicate with other materials, one of the reasons the laws will not be enforced for more than a decade. "We like copper because of the way it deals with heat, and it makes for a smooth braking experience," he said. "There really isn't any economic or safe alternative, so brake manufacturers need time to develop a safe alternative solution. The issue with copper is strictly an aquatic animal issue. There is no human health issue with the copper concentrations in stormwater runoff. We don't want to rush into solutions that bring even more problems."

Sustainable Conservation's J. Stacey Sullivan says, "My understanding is there are materials right now that will stop a vehicle just fine, but they don't have all the performance and customer satisfaction components in place." Bob Weed of the CDA adds that safety is the number one priority. "Because this issue affects drivers and their families, the auto industry wants to be very cautious about making changes that would have unintended negative consequences," he said. "We fully support their position in not compromising on either safety or performance."

More Legislative Action to Come

Currently, Oregon, Rhode Island and New York are considering similar bills to those that passed in Washington and California. Curt Augustine says that more states are likely to follow. He notes that most states' bills should be based on the Washington version rather than California's. The difference is in the timing for the proposed laws to take effect. California's law is specifically intended to comply with the state's unique Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) mandates. Because of these mandates, brakes in California can have no more than .5 percent copper by 2025. "The Washington law includes a provision that manufacturers will have to meet the .5 percent restriction eight years from the date that safety and environmental experts deem a viable alternative is available," says Augustine. "This is critical in light of the fact that the brake pad industry does not currently have a feasible alternative to copper." Augustine anticipates that eventually, whatever alternative material is ultimately decided upon will be integrated into brake pads across the United States. "It would be impractical to manufacture brake pads on a state-by-state basis in order to meet differing regulatory requirements," he says.

A Final Word from the CDA

The CDA's Bob Weed says, "We believe that everyone should abide by whatever regulations are in place. It was decided to limit copper in brake pads, and we support that. The questions of whether copper can be replaced, how much it would cost, and what the appropriate time frame would be are out of our realm of expertise, however. So we will continue to support our automotive stakeholders in their efforts to find a workable alternative."