Getting the Lead Out

Typically, faucets are not a major concern for administrators. However, a recently passed California law, Proposition 65, established a new standard for lead content in faucets that eventually could affect all schools.

The concern by California lawmakers is that lead could possibly leach from the faucet into the water during long periods of non-use. Since most faucets are made from brass alloys that contain lead, manufacturers must create durable faucets with a lead-free alloy. Although this law only affects California, 28 states currently are considering similar legislation, and the reality is that concerned parents may demand changes in schools before any legislation is passed in these states.

While the concerns should be addressed, research has proven that most leaded faucets do not pose a health threat. However, not all parents will believe this. Therefore, it would be best to know the lead status of the faucets in your school and resolve any potential problems.

Plumbing standards and laws Before California passed this new law, the plumbing industry initiated its own lead standard--NSF Standard 61, Section 9--created by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). NSF Standard 61, Section 9 is a drinking-water standard that states plumbing fittings will not contribute more than 11 parts per billion (ppb) of lead to a liter of water after the water has been standing in the fitting for 16 hours.

Proposition 65 states that faucets shall meet 5 ppb, an even more strict criteria than the NSF 61 standard of 11 ppb. Therefore, as of January this year, faucets that do not comply with Proposition 65 cannot be shipped into California. This does not affect faucets already installed.

The best way to determine if products in your school are approved for drinking-water or commercial applications is to ask the right questions. Contact the manufacturer and ask if its products are listed for drinking-water or commercial applications. NSF and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) have issued certifications to several manufacturers that list the products approved for drinking-water or commercial-water uses.

Most manufacturers have been able to comply with the commercial-faucet requirements by making minor changes to existing products or manufacturing processes. Brass-faucet manufacturers must make significant investments in materials and process changes to meet the much lower levels of restricted material.

Remember that having an NSF 61 listing does not mean that all of a manufacturer's products are approved. Manufacturers began submitting product samples in early 1995 for approval. If a product was not submitted, it was not listed. Likewise, buying a listed product is not a guarantee that it meets NSF 61 requirements. Only the listing agency's logo--either NSF or UL--on the box assures that the product meets the standard.

Making changes Manufacturers tackled the new lead standard in several different ways. Some chose to create a new cast brass alloy by using plastic parts inside assembled component faucets, which is fine for home faucets that receive little use. Since most commercial products are used in high-use institutional and commercial applications, they must be durable and vandal resistant.

The way the legislation currently is structured, metering faucets, which automatically shut off after a specified duration of water flow, are exempt. This is because metering faucets are designed to be used for hand washing. Also, in unsupervised washrooms, the metering device guarantees the faucet will not be left running. However, in schools, students often use these faucets to fill water bottles and to grab gulps of water; therefore, it is a good idea to make sure all metering faucets are lead-free, as well.

There are testing services available that will come to a school and test the faucets. Make sure the company tests for NSF 61, Section 9 protocol for drinking-water components. The lead content of the faucet itself is not as important as the leaching number they will test for. However, lead content can have a direct effect on leaching.

Since most current installations are well within the legal limits at the time of installation, the manufacturers and contractors are under no obligation to replace the faucets. If you are concerned with the testing agency's results, you can specify that new faucets certified to drinking-water standards be installed.

If you are building a new school, there are several issues in addition to lead you can resolve from the beginning by making sure the following concerns are addressed in faucet specifications:

-ADA compliance. The Americans with Disabilities Act created standards for plumbing fixtures. Fittings must be operable with one hand and shall not require tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist. The force required to activate the faucet must not exceed 5 lbs.

-Vandal resistance. Solid-cast brass faucets hold up to abuse better than assembled component faucets. If you have no-touch electronic faucets, make sure they automatically shut down if the sensor is obstructed.

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