Home » Blog posts » Copper is being phased out of brake pads to reduce harm to salmon, other creatures

Working on a disc brake, a mechanic adjusts the caliper and brake pad. Starting Jan. 1, copper in brake pads will come under new restrictions.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

Copper is being phased out of brake pads to reduce harm to salmon, other creatures

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Manufacturers of automobile parts are facing their first deadline for removing copper from brake pads. Most seem to be well prepared to meet the new requirements under Washington state law.

In 2010, Washington was the first state in the nation to outlaw copper in brake pads, after scientists discovered that the metal can severely affect the behavior of salmon. California soon followed, and by 2015 the industry came together with a nationwide agreement to phase out copper in brake pads.

By the end of this year, new brake pads must have no more than 5 percent copper by weight. By 2025, the limit is reduced to 0.5 percent. New cars going on the market must all have the new low-copper brakes. Some allowances have been made for auto-repair shops and retail stores that need to use up existing inventories.

Over time, reducing the amount of copper in brakes — and thus in roadway runoff — is expected to improve conditions for salmon and other aquatic organisms, according to officials with the Washington Department of Ecology.

I first learned about the toxic effects of copper in 2012, when Jen McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, was studying how copper impairs the sense of smell in coho salmon. (Kitsap Sun, July 11, 2012). One dramatic experiment was shown in a video (this page), which reveals the behavior of young salmon with and without copper in the water.

Normally, when a predator attacks a group of salmon, the smell of torn flesh will alert nearby fish to the danger. They will suddenly stop moving about and hunker down to avoid predation.

Watch the green light at the top of the video screen and notice how the two coho are behaving. In the top view, the water contains no copper, while the bottom view shows a fish exposed to copper. At first, the two fish are acting alike, but when the light turns red and the “alarm odor” is added, you can see one fish taking steps to avoid predation and the other still swimming about, much more likely to being eaten.

Since the sense of smell is critical to helping spawning salmon find their way back to their home stream from the ocean, copper may confuse their travel, which could hinder survival of the entire local population. Various effects of copper are reported in a brief article in “Fish Pathology.”

Copper was used for years in many brake pads for its ability to dissipate heat and allow for stable and smooth braking. Despite the value of copper, manufacturers were convinced by scientific research that the metal can be harmful in the environment, and they cooperated in a 10-year phase-out plan. (See 2010 news release from Copper Development Association.)

Now, manufacturers are reporting that replacement materials have been found and are being incorporated into newer brake pads. Some materials even offer added benefits, such as reducing brake noise, according to reports. See Hitachi Chemical’s handout on advanced brake pads using graphite and titanite. More common materials included in brake pads are ceramics, Kevlar and carbon semi-metallic, according to “Common Brake Pad Questions …” on the “Know Your Parts” website sponsored by the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association.

In reading the literature about brake pads, I quickly realized that these seemingly simple parts are highly engineered and critical to the proper functioning of a car — and well they should be, given that brakes may be the key to avoiding a car crash and reducing injury.

Materials and brake design are quite complicated. Among the articles offering advice for consumers:

I suspect, based on these and other articles, that the newer brake pads may cost somewhat more than the old ones, particularly for products made with advanced materials used for the highest performance. But if you pay someone to install your brakes, you probably won’t notice much difference in the overall cost.

The new requirements for brake pad materials are outlined in a memorandum of understanding signed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Council of States and eight industry groups representing brake manufacturers and suppliers. The MOU covers how the new brakes are tested, certified and identified for compliance with the new requirements.

Edge codes embedded on the brake pads identify the specific product and specify whether the brakes meet one of three levels of compliance. The codes include one of three letters: “A,” “B” or “N,” with “B” meeting the requirements coming up at the end of this year and “N” meeting the most stringent standards with less than 0.5 percent copper and no asbestos, chromium, lead, mercury, cadmium or antimony.

Coho salmon can be affected by copper in the water.
Photo: NOAA, Southwest Fisheries Science Center

“The industry is ahead of schedule,” according to Laurie Holmes, senior director for environmental policy with the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association. She added that manufacturers of friction materials used in brakes have been working hard to produce new materials for environmental protection as well as performance.

As of this month, about 60 percent of the brake pads registered for use with NSF International already meet the certification “B” or “N,” with nearly 50 percent at the higher “N” level.

A “leaf mark” logo on brake-pad packaging tells the purchaser what level of compliance has been reached. One, two or three leaves are colored in to represent “A,” “B,” or “N” compliance.

Unmarked products manufactured before the new standards went into effect may be sold until 2025, according to guidance from the Washington Department of Ecology. See also Ecology’s 2016 report to the Legislature: Washington’s Better Brakes Law: A national model for improving water quality (PDF 558 kb).

In Washington, the Department of Ecology will be in charge of making sure that manufacturers, retailers and installers follow the rules for copper in brake pads.

“Our goal at Ecology is to keep people in compliance,” said Lauren Tamboer, spokeswoman for Ecology’s Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction Program. Eventually, Ecology officials plan to conduct testing of brake pads being sold in Washington to ensure compliance with the regulations.

According to EPA statistics, Washington state motorists were putting 250,000 pounds of copper into the environment in 2011, shortly after passage of the new law. Based on estimates in California, as much as 61 percent of that copper will be eliminated as a result of the new brake pad materials.

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