The Safe Drinking Water Act and Copper Alloys

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974 governs drinking water quality in both municipalities and rural water districts and was established to minimize chemical and bacterial contamination of drinking water. In 1986, amendments to the SDWA were issued by Congress to further control drinking water. Until 1986, the EPA had set standards for 25 contaminants, but the 1986 amendments called on the EPA to set standards for 83 chemicals.

The 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) amendments included Section 1417. This section addressed concerns for lead contamination in drinking water systems. As of June 19, 1986, all pipes, solders, pipe fittings or plumbing fixtures used in the installation or repair of any public water system or any plumbing in a residential or nonresidential facility which provided water for human consumption had to be "lead-free." The term "lead-free" was defined to mean that solder and flux could not contain more than 0.2 percent lead; pipes and fittings not more than 8.0 percent; and plumbing fittings and fixtures must comply with voluntary standards required under the SDWA.

This section was expanded in 1996 to include the regulation of leaded plumbing fittings and fixtures. The 1996 SDWA amendments contain new provisions to address the lead content of plumbing fittings and fixtures. New section 1417 (e) provides that if voluntary standards for lead leaching from new plumbing fittings and fixtures are not established a year after enactment of the SDWA amendments of 1996, within two years USEPA must issue regulations setting a performance standard establishing maximum leaching levels for fixtures intended to dispense water for human consumption. If regulations are required but not issued within five years of enactment, the bill prohibits the use of such plumbing fittings or fixtures that contain more than 4 percent lead.

The term "lead free" as it applies to plumbing fittings and fixtures is defined in the amendments of the SDWA. This is set forth in section 1417, which states that the term "lead free," "When used with respect to plumbing fittings and fixtures, refers to plumbing fittings and fixtures in compliance with standards established in accordance with subsection (e)."

Subsection (e) centers on "Plumbing Fittings and Fixtures" and requires EPA to promulgate regulations setting a health-effects based performance standard, "If a voluntary standard for the leaching of lead is not established by the date that is one year after the date of enactment of this subsection...". By Federal Register notice dated August 22, 1997, U.S. EPA stated, "NSF Standard 61, Section 9 satisfies the requirement of section 1417(e), that a voluntary standard be established. Thus, the obligation to issue regulations is not triggered." (62 FR at 44685). Accordingly, plumbing fittings and fixtures that comply with NSF 61, Section 9 are "lead free" by definition, even if low levels of lead do exist in the product.

NSF International Standard 61, Section 9, was completed in 1994. This standard limits the amount of lead and other contaminants that a device may contribute to drinking water and applies to any devices used within the final one liter of volume that exits from a tap or other device. This includes endpoint devices such as faucets, ice makers and water coolers. NSF Standard 61, Section 9, satisfies the SDWA requirement for development of a voluntary standard. Plumbing fixtures and fittings that comply with this standard are considered "lead-free" and may be used in drinking water systems.

The 1996 SDWA amendments added new enforcement provisions. Effective two years after the date of enactment, it will be unlawful for any person to introduce into commerce any pipe, pipe fitting, plumbing fitting or plumbing fixture that is not lead free, except for a pipe that is used in manufacturing or industrial processing. The date of enactment of this provision was August 6, 1996, which is the date the "two year grace period" began. The ending date for the grace period is August 6,1998. However, EPA will not be enforcing this provision. At the present time, individual states can enact legislation or modify plumbing codes as an enforcement mechanism.

EPA in a Federal Register notice stated that "section 1417(a)(3) of the SDWA, as amended, makes it unlawful to introduce into commerce after August 6, 1998 any ... plumbing fitting ... that is not lead free." EPA also refers to August 6, 1998 in its interpretation of the term "introduce into commerce". The law applies to the public water supply, so a literal interpretation would mean everyone is subject to it. Therefore, anyone manufacturing, selling or installing plumbing products needs to make sure that the products comply with the NSF standard.

The Act does not address materials used to construct faucets and other fittings and fixtures. It requires that the final "device" must be certified to NSF Standard 61, section 9. Therefore many copper alloys commonly used for the manufacture of plumbing fittings and fixtures (i.e. C34000, C34500, C35300, C36000, C37700, C83800, C85200, etc.) can be used, providing the final fitting, fixture or component passes NSF Standard 61, section 9.