The week after Thanksgiving, I attended a meeting of the NSF Joint Committee of Drinking Water Additives. This is the committee that develops NSF 60 and 61.

Most engineers are familiar with NSF 61 as the standard that regulates the quality of material that comes in contact with potable water. Actually, the standard regulates indirect additives to drinking water. Those additives are the products that are extracted from the inside wall of the piping system that has come in contact with the drinking water.

While we consider the standard a potable water piping system standard, it is really a drinking water standard. For example, the ballcock in a water closet tank is in contact with potable water. However, we don’t drink the water from the water closet. Hence, there are no requirements for a ballcock in NSF 61. The same is true for shower valves, tub fillers, certain backflow preventers and similar products.

It was pointed out at the meeting that some of us have been involved with the committee for the 22 years that it has been in existence. That includes yours truly. This was mentioned because the chairman of the committee, Gayle Smith from Utah, retired. He had been the only committee chairman, and a good one, I might add.

Levels of Lead

Perhaps the hottest issue at this year’s meeting was acceptable levels of lead in the extraction of plumbing products. The current standard is based on a maximum concentration of 15 ppb, or parts per billion. For the past few years, the discussion always ensued about the need to lower the lead levels. However, everyone recognized that you cannot arbitrarily lower lead levels if there is no technology to reach lower levels.

Some environmentalists assume that lead levels haven’t been lowered because everyone was kowtowing to manufacturers. They further believed that manufacturers were doing nothing. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Over the years, the manufacturers have made great strides in lowering lead extraction levels in plumbing products.

This year, the committee decided that it was time to lower the lead levels. However, to help the industry in achieving the lower level, they decided to place an implementation date in the standard. This is not unusual since it had been done for other contaminants listed in NSF 61.

After considerable discussion, the lead level was lowered to 5 ppb with an implementation date of Jan. 1, 2012. This will provide the manufacturers five years to be in compliance. It was noted that the majority of manufacturers already comply with this lower level.

It wasn’t stated during the meeting, but it was obvious during the break that the decision of the California legislators to pass AB1953 annoyed just about everyone at the meeting. As previously reported, the California legislators voted to require plumbing products to have a maximum of 0.25% lead in their products. The governor signed this legislation Sept. 30.

This California law would eliminate the majority of brass plumbing products from the marketplace. The stupidity of the law is that it does not require testing to NSF 61. Many times, the high lead level on a brass product comes from the cutting oils left on the inside of the valve or fitting, not the lead in the brass. Hence, you could have a 0.25% lead-type brass that contributes more than 5 or 15 ppb to the drinking water.

Some thought that the NSF committee was responding to the California fiasco. However, that is not true. This was a culmination of many years of discussion and research regarding lead levels. It was more of a coincidence that it occurred shortly after California legislators enacted their wacky lead requirement.

The plumbing industry hopes that California will come to its senses and embrace NSF 61 to regulate brass products, just like 49 other states have done. NSF 61 is based on technology, whereas, the California legislation is based on trumpery and politics. The California legislation has no basis in reality.

Galvanized Steel Pipe

One of the other discussions that occurred at the NSF meeting regarded galvanized steel pipe. At the current time, galvanized steel pipe cannot pass the tests specified in NSF 61. That is not to say that the material is bad for transporting drinking water.

I recall studies in the 1970s and early 1980s that pointed out the changes in our health when there was a switch from galvanized pipe to copper tubing. The public was not receiving the minimum requirement of zinc, which was previously provided by our drinking water. Shortly after these reports, all the multivitamins and cold remedies pointed out that they added zinc, the miracle metal, to their formulation. By the way, zinc is beneficial in preventing the common cold, as well as reducing the length of time you have a cold.

The reason galvanized steel pipe has had a difficult time passing is because the test water for evaluating steel pipe has a high pH. At a high pH, zinc is extracted at a high rate. However, none of the drinking water in the United States has that high a pH. The reason the test water is a high pH is to evaluate other contaminants extracted from other piping and fitting materials. It was not intended to evaluate zinc.

Unfortunately, there were a number of negatives regarding the change in pH for testing galvanized steel pipe. It appeared that, within the next six months, the negative comments will be resolved with minor changes to the proposed modification. This is necessary because galvanized steel pipe is still a viable material being used in water distribution systems, especially in larger sizes.

When looking back over the past 22 years, it is interesting to note that this one standard (NSF 61) has done a world of good in reducing the number of contaminants in drinking water. Drinking water in the United States and Canada is the cleanest in the world, thanks to the diligent work of the plumbing industry in the development and implementation of NSF 61.