Faucet suits filed under California anti-toxic law

NEW YORK — Fourteen faucet manufacturers were hit with lawsuits in California last week for allegedly allowing toxic lead to leach from their products into drinking water. The state and two environmental groups filed separate suits under California’s anti-toxic law, known as Proposition 65. Since 1988, this law has forced manufacturers whose products are deemed toxic under California’s regulations to stop selling in the state.

The suit names some of the country’s top best brass kitchen faucet producers, including Delta Faucet Co., a unit of Masco Corp.; Kohler Co.; and Price Pfister Inc., owned by Black & Decker Corp. Cliff Rechtschaffen, the attorney for California, said that the state’s goals and those of the environmental co-plaintiffs, the National Resource Defense Council and the Environmental Law Foundation, are “generally consistent.” The goals are to eliminate lead in faucets and to eliminate human exposure to lead from contemporary faucets, he said.

“The theoretical maximum penalty is hundreds of millions of dollars, but that’s not what we’re seeking,” he said, adding that the case need never go to court if the industry cooperates. “We should have industry provide a public education campaign and agreement to get lead out of best brass kitchen faucet within a few months,” he said. The environmentalists go further. They also want faucet manufacturers to fund health screening for infants exposed to lead and called for statutory penalties to be imposed.

The ELF is a non-profit consultative body partly funded by fines under environmental regulations and NRDC is a public interest group with 170,000 members across the United States. They claim that the nation’s major best brass kitchen faucet makers have known since 1988 that their products are unsafe. The plaintiffs are basing their case on a recent study which shows lead levels in the named manufacturers’ faucets to be up to a hundred times higher than California’s allowable limits and frequently higher than federal limits.

Dr. Richard Mass, a scientist on the Environmental Studies Program at the University of North Carolina, Ashville, conducted the study. He said he used the National Sanitation Foundation’s testing protocol based on a sample of one faucet per manufacturer. The worst offenders under Proposition 65, which allows 0.5 parts of lead per billion, were the best brass kitchen faucet Co. with 124.8 parts per billion and Price Pfister with 78.65 parts per billion, he said.

“In 49 states there’s nothing illegal in what these manufacturers are doing because there really is no federal standard,” he said. While the EPA has determined the amount of lead which can be used in lead-alloy faucets, he said there is only an action level where lead in water is concerned. The EPA had set a maximum contamination level of 50 parts per billion until medical data on lead-associated health risks forced them to revise that to a goal of zero parts lead per billion, he said. At that time, June 1991, it also set an action standard of 15 parts per billion, he added.

Rechtschaffen said, “There has been a stalemate between the EPA and the industry over this. We hope that this suit will pressure EPA to take action and will set a precedent for other manufacturers.” ELF’s president, Jim Wheaton, said, “This case marks an important step in the war on lead in the environment.”

A spokesman for the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute, which represents most of the industry, said his members’ products are safe. Craig Selover, vice president of engineering with Delta Faucet, said, “I believe our products comply with all applicable federal and state laws, including Proposition 65.” He added that industry and EPA are “close to completing work on the standard which measures the contaminants in drinking water–the real objective.”

Mike Hoopis, president of Price Pfister, said the lawsuits were “base-less and irresponsible” and would frighten consumers. He criticized the way water was tested after it had been in the pipe for 16 hours. “That’s very untypical of the way the consumer uses a faucet,” he said, adding, “It’s easy for people to protect themselves from the risk of any possible lead exposure by flushing the faucet for 60 seconds.”

Julie Duncan, staff scientist with ELF, said while there is no reason to believe consumers routinely run their faucets befoe use, the burden of warning them and of providing a safe product should be on the manufacturer. “We should be moving as a society to remove lead from use,” she added. All of those contacted in the industry said they were investigating the use of materials other than lead in their faucets.

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