Compare the two brake pads. Copper flecks are visible in the upper one. Photo courtesy of Washington Dept. of Ecology

Environmental concerns are rarely local anymore. This is certainly the case as regulation regarding copper residue in the Pacific Northwest impacts auto manufacturing processes in the Midwest.

Copper is considered toxic to fish, particularly salmon. The copper is implicated in salmon mobility as well as their sense of smell, impairing their abilities to evade predators and return to their spawning locations.

Although copper is used in many industrial and consumer products (water pipes, wiring and household pesticides), state and federal environmental regulators have been concerned particularly with the usage of copper in manufacturing brake pads. Unbelievably, the copper in brake pads comprises nearly half of the copper runoff in urban waterways.

How does the copper from brake pads end up in waterways? Actually, the process is quite simple. As brakes begin to age and brake pads erode, the copper that is in the pads sloughs off and is deposited on roadways. This detritus then gets washed into nearby small and large waterways.

The move to regulate the copper in brake pads began in the states of Washington and California. In 2010, Washington regulated a reduction in the use of copper in brake pads manufactured and sold in Washington (Washington State Better Brakes Law). Concurrently, California’s then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed similar legislation (California Brake Pad Law).

At this point, representatives from several automotive manufacturers have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the US Environmental Protection Agency, which appears to be a step towards voluntary reduction. In addition this MOU creates a beginning uniformity, hopefully eliminating diverse, conflicting state regulations. The likely outcome is that the legislation to protect the Puget Sound and other waterways will have reverberations on the components of brake pads, created in Michigan.