When friends of the automobile think about environmental regulation, our minds tend to tend to leap towards emissions. Between energy independence, air quality and the specter of global warming, a number of political agendas focus auto regulations on the tailpipe and drivetrain, driving a number of changes in the industry. But, as the AP reports, engines aren’t the only automotive components that impact the environment. The state of Washington has voted to ban brake pads with more than five percent copper content by 2021, making it the first state in the union to address the accumulation of heavy metals in groundwater through automotive regulation.
Brake pads are typically made of metal and composite compounds which are selected for their ability to dissipate kinetic energy as heat. Copper replaced asbestos as a major brake pad component element in the early 90s (typically composing up to one quarter of the brake pad compound by volume), when the carcinogenic insulating material was banned as a health hazard. The problem with copper is that the friction caused by braking causes tiny shavings of copper to separate from the brake pad, scattering trace amounts of the heavy metal across the landscape. This, say scientists, causes copper to accumulate in rivers and streams, where it wreaks havoc with the ecosystem.
Biologists are especially concerned about two specific copper-related toxicity problems. First, even small amounts of copper can interfere with salmon’s ability to smell, a crucial tool for survival. When young salmon are exposed to even moderate amounts of copper pollution, their sense of smell can be permanently harmed, making them more vulnerable to predators. Given the important role salmon plays in the economy of the Pacific Northwest, this is a risk that scientists and the business community are equally concerned about. Furthermore, copper is known to be toxic to plankton, which form the base of the marine ecosystem. Were copper levels to climb to a point where plankton started dying off, the impact could easily ripple through the entire coastal ecosystem, and permanently damage West Coast fisheries.
But to what extent are auto brakes responsible for copper accumulation in waterways? After all, brakes only release tiny amounts of copper over long periods of time, while copper remains a common element in pipes, paint and numerous other construction materials. Washington’s lawmakers cite a study by the nonprofit organization Sustainable Conservation, which found that up to a third of all copper pollution in the San Francisco Bay could be traced to copper from automotive brakes. Washington officials figure that about the same proportion of the 70,000 to 318,000 pounds of copper released into Puget Sound each year comes from brakes, meaning the law could eliminate between 25,000 and 105,000 pounds of copper pollution each year.
Best of all, the industry isn’t fighting the new Washington law. Unlike CAFE increases or other environmental regulations, this new law hasn’t been accompanied by wailing and gnashing of teeth from auto OEMs or brake supplier firms. Instead, at least one industry source has made peace with the new law:
The industry believes it can produce a safe and reasonably priced brake pad without copper, said Terry Heffelfinger, director of product engineering for Affinia Global Brake & Chassis, a major brake maker. One alternative may be ceramic brake pads, which have grown in popularity in recent years.
Let’s just hope these new compounds don’t raise costs the way a set of ceramic stoppers can send a Porsche’s price soaring. A reasonable ramp-up of copper-content standards will help the industry adapt, as it has until 2021 to cut copper down to five percent of brake pad content, a standard that many cars already meet. The law is supposed to ban all but trace amounts of copper from brake pads by 2023, but only if the industry is able to prove that it’s possible.
Though some decry regulation in all forms, this example seems to prove that common-sense regulation of the automobile’s environmental impact is possible when goals are reasonable, analysis is well-grounded in hard science, and the approach is cooperative. And if this law hastens the day when ceramic brake pads are no longer a ten-grand-plus option on only a few high-end performance cars, it will have spurred industry innovation as well. Plus, salmon is delicious. Win-win is never easy, but this law gets close.