Washington State is protecting salmon by removing copper from automotive brakes.

A Better Brakes law passed in 2010 went into effect two years ago, and aims to phase out copper completely by 2025.

You touch your brakes and a little bit of material gets deposited on the road and from there it just washes into a stream or river where salmon maybe spawning or trying to go home or  back to the ocean.   

Ian Wesley is Better Brakes Coordinator at the WA Dept. of Ecology. The program was spawned after years of research showed that even trace levels of copper in water will damage a salmon’s ability to smell.

The NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center has done a lot of work on how science affects salmons’ ability to smell, and juvenile salmon are particularly susceptible to these effects. So even trace levels of copper will damage their ability to smell, which inhibits their ability to avoid predators. They will release a hormone into the water that alerts other fish when there is danger nearby and it prevents other salmon from being to smell that so they won’t know when danger is in the water and they won’t hide from it.  

Wesley said the program was driven by a partnership between brake makers, water quality watchers and regulators.

Brake manufacturers agreed that if it was shown their products were causing environmental harm, they would work to phase copper out of their brake pads.

And they did. Now, any brakes sold in Washington come with a Better Brake logo.

If you want to sell brakes in Washington State you need to mark your products with a three leaf logo – it is a registered certification mark that the brake manufacturers have registered it – and it shows the level of concentration in a brake pad. And it has three leafs and when all three are filled in it means there is no copper in the product, when two are filled in it means less than five percent copper, and when one is filled in it means there is no asbestos or lead in the product.  

Penalties for non compliance are applied to the brake makers, Wesley said, with a maximum penalty of $10,000 per violation.

California has followed suit and the Better Brake program is going nationwide.

The break manufacturers have signed a memorandum of understanding with the EPA to voluntarily agree to comply with WA requirements on a nationwide basis.  So both the large retailers and distributors and manufacturers have agreed to only sell certified brakes throughout the country and then to make sure the copper requirements are met for all the brakes they make.   

Washington laws also strongly encourage grassy alternatives to drains and pipes that let road runoff percolate through the ground, as it did before urban areas were paved over.

Overall, Wesley credits US brake makers for willingly making changes to give salmon a break.

The brake manufacturers really deserve a lot of credit and they have been moving faster than we expected them to. They’ve really gone above and beyond.