Retooling Brake Pads & Duck Boom

  • (Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Washington and California recently adopted laws that ban all but traces of copper in automotive brake pads by the year 2021. The two states say the metal gets into watersheds and hurts endangered salmon. The decision could change the way brakes are made around the world, as Tracy Samilton reports:

Copper is a great material for brakes. It's durable, and it absorbs heat and noise. But it comes with an environmental price. Ian Wesley is with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Each time a driver uses their brakes, a small amount of the material gets worn off, and when it rains, that can be washed into streams and rivers.

About a third of the copper in some watersheds in California and Washington State comes from brakes. And copper is not good for salmon, because it wreaks havoc with their ability to smell.

Salmon release a pheromone when they perceive a threat. Other salmon react to the scent by dropping to the bottom of the water and staying there, very still.

"When they do that, it helps them avoid the predators, but if there's even very low levels of copper in the water, they can't smell this pheromone, and they continue to swim around kind of oblivious to the danger that's nearby."

The phased-in ban by the two states will likely affect everyone. That's partly because it's just too expensive to develop a product for one or two states.

Terry Heffelfinger is head of product engineering for Affinia Global Brake. He says European car companies still use an older style of brake that doesn't use copper. But many Americans don't like them, because they're noisy.

"They also make your wheels dust more than ceramic materials."

Heffelfinger says it will take time to develop a copper-free brake as quiet and dust-free as the kind that's being phased out.

By the way, while they were banning copper in brakes, California and Washington also banned asbestos in brakes. A few non-domestic car companies still use asbestos brakes here. That ban will take effect in just three years. For the Environment Report, I'm Tracy Samilton.

(music bump)

If you’re a duck, this is a good news, bad news story.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes surveys of the ten most abundant duck species every year. 

Brad Bortner is Chief of the Division of Migratory Bird Management at the Fish and Wildlife Service.  He says this year’s survey recorded more than 48 million ducks. That’s the highest number of ducks recorded since the agency started keeping records in 1955.

“We’ve had a series of very good years on the prairies, with excellent water conditions and great habitat management and restoration programs.”

He says more than half of North America’s duck breeding happens in the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and eastern Montana.  It’s nicknamed America’s duck factory.

Bortner says species such as mallards, gadwalls and redheads are all doing great.  And he says the breeding duck populations in Michigan are doing well too.

So… that’s the good news.  The bad news… some other duck species are not doing so well. 

Brad Bortner says conditions that are good for some species are not good for others.  Diving ducks hang out in deeper wetlands… and there was enough water to support them.  But the shallow wetlands dried up.

“We had a loss of temporary and shallow wetlands because of lack of rain and the mild winter that has affected breeding habitat for some of the early nesting dabbling species.”

The survey finds there were drastic wetland declines in some areas of the prairie regions. Brad Bortner says habitat loss is a big concern…

"Loss of habitat through agriculture and other development.”

But at the moment… Brad Bortner says the high numbers for many duck species are a pretty good sign.  He expects hunters and bird watchers will see plenty of ducks this fall.

That’s the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.