Better Brakes for Clean Water

freeway in the rain

It’s no secret that I have a lot of car trouble. We have a love-hate relationship and I’m fortunate to be able to ride my bike to work most days. On a trip to the mechanic recently I got to thinking about our vehicles and traffic’s impact on water quality. With over 6 million vehicles in the LA region, and infamous traffic jams, we have some pretty grimy roads.

Everyone knows that cars cause air pollution, but they are also a significant source of water pollution. It doesn’t have to do with fuel economy though, it has to do with braking. Vehicle brake pads contain heavy metals, asbestos and as much as 20% copper. Each time you step on the brakes, the pad grinds against the disk and small amounts of debris are released onto streets, into the air and, eventually, into waterways. When it rains, all of the grime and copper is wasted into gutters, through the storm drains to our rivers, and to the Santa Monica and San Pedro Bays.

Copper is toxic to many aquatic organisms like phytoplankton, which is the basis of the marine food chain and whose health affects the entire ecosystem. In high amounts, copper can also impair salmon’s sense of smell and affect their ability to navigate upstream to spawning grounds. Mercury, another metal found in brake pads, bio accumulates in fish tissue and can render fish dangerous to eat.

Something to think about next time you are sitting in stop-and-go traffic on the 405, huh?

There is good news though, in 2010 Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 346 that phases out copper from vehicle brake pads in order to protect water quality and our aquatic resources. This new law comes into effect January 1, 2014 and is modeled after the Better Brake Law in Washington. It starts with the ban of brake pads containing more than trace amounts of heavy metals (i.e. cadmium, lead and mercury) and asbestos and then in 2021 it bans brake pads containing more than 5% copper. By 2025 copper must be eliminated from new brake pads almost entirely.

Starting next year you will be able to see a SAE Environmental Marking letter “A” on brake pads sold in California, indicating it meets the first phase standards of SB 346. Something to be grateful for in the New Year.

More facts and tips on water quality and vehicles:

  •      It only takes four quarts, or the amount of 1 oil change, of used motor oil to foul one million gallons of drinking water.
  •      Each year millions of gallons of used motor oil are disposed of improperly: spilled or poured directly onto the ground or down storm drains. Leaked or dripped motor oil has the same fate.
  •      Attend to your leaky car, use drip pans, and always properly dispose of used motor oil.
  •     Take your vehicle to a commercial car wash that recycles water to prevent detergents and other contaminants from being washed down the storm drains.
  •     When working on your car prevent fluids from reaching the street or storm drain by working on a flat surface, use tarps and drip pans. Have absorbent pads handy or alternatively use kitty litter to clean up spills if they occur.

-Lara Meeker, Watershed Program Manager

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