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Brake Pad Partnership Seeks to Remove Copper From Stormwater Runoff

by Ranger Kidwell-Ross

The Brake Pad Partnership (BPP) is a multi-stakeholder effort by the California organization, Sustainable Conservation. The problem the BPP group is addressing is to gain a better understanding of the role brake pad wear plays in putting copper into waterways.

Here's the problem: Each time you step on your car's brakes, small amounts of debris, including metal such as copper, are released onto streets and into waterways. Dissolved copper is toxic to phytoplankton, the base of the aquatic food chain. Drivers in the United States press on their brakes billions of times a day, which could have a potentially harmful impact on the environment.

The Brake Pad Partnership brings together, for the first time, government regulators, brake pad manufacturers, stormwater management agencies and environmentalists. This highly collaborative team is evaluating the potential effects of brake wear debris on water quality, using copper in South San Francisco Bay as an example.

Brake pad manufacturers have committed to adding this evaluation approach to their existing practices for designing products that minimize their negative impact on the environment while still meeting the performance requirements demanded of these important safety-related products. The Partnership's technical studies indicate that brake pads contribute substantially to copper in runoff to the San Francisco Bay, and the Partnership's focus is now shifting from conducting technical studies to framing a control measure for copper from brake pads.

Copper from brake pads accounts for up to half of the anthropogenic copper discharging from highly urbanized watersheds to the San Francisco Bay and approximately 5% to 15% of the anthropogenic copper discharging to the Bay from the more rural watersheds. As a component of its testing process, the BPP analyzed the pickup capabilities of sweepers in terms of ability to remove copper from streets. Here is a PDF file with the results of that study.

The Partnership is attempting to translate its findings into a control measure that would ensure reductions in copper from brake pads entering stormwater runoff. Findings to date suggest that to be effective, the control measure should seek reductions in levels of copper used in brake pads, taking into account the important role copper plays in meeting safety and customer satisfaction requirements in these products.

It should also take into consideration the length of time required to bring reduced-copper brake pads to market, given the stringent safety and performance tests that are required of the automotive industry, and compliance timelines imposed by California water quality regulators. Additional considerations include measures to assure copper reductions are achieved, and whether to address brake pad ingredients other than copper through the control measure.

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