Lead in Brass Instruments and California's Prop 65 July 02 2021

Some thoughts on lead in trumpets, door keys and Prop 65...

CEH

In 2019 several emails from clients referenced an article posted online by the Center for Environmental Health.  The concern was about dangerous lead levels in brass musical instruments, an important topic for all of us.  Since then we see more warning labels that read “CA Prop 65 Warning”.  This sounds dangerous.  What’s going on?

The Center for Environmental Health article about “high lead in brass instruments” was light on details and has since been removed from their website.  From what I recall, CEH purchased a number of brass products from Guitar Center, including Guitar Center’s own Giardinelli branded instruments.  The Giardinelli brand has an esteemed lineage, though it now comprises mostly of inexpensive products imported from Asia.  CEH found high lead levels in these products but offered few further details, leading to unanswered questions:  Do we expect to find low-lead brass in the least expensive instruments?  (No, but we should.)  Were the instruments cleaned before testing as we would clean them before playing?  Where was the lead found?  Lacquered part?  Plated part?  By cutting into the instrument?  What amount of lead is acceptable?  How does that compare to a Bach Stradivarius professional trumpet?  Without such information, the CES press release sounds more like a marketing tactic than good science.

Here is a short article, also light on details, regarding the CEH lawsuit.  Call it a press release.

https://www.ceh.org/latest/news-coverage/bay-area-environmental-group-challenges-lead-in-musical-mouthpieces/

Brass Keys

Further reading on lead in brass led to this press release about a lawsuit with similar details.  In 1999, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer sued several door key manufacturers over high lead levels in their raw brass keys.  The lawsuit was settled in 2001 with key makers agreeing to use brass with no more than 1.5% lead.  The interesting part of the press release is at the end: 

Some keys are made from nickel-silver, or plated with nickel-silver, and do not give off significant amounts of lead. Those keys are not affected by the settlement.

California Attorney General press release:

https://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/major-manufacturers-agree-reduce-amount-lead-door-keys-under-settlement

Brass Instruments

We are much more intimate with our brass instruments than we are with our house keys.  But unlike keys, very few brass instruments are actually raw brass.  Mostly they are coated with lacquer, plated in nickel or silver, or they may be fabricated of all nickel.  Our brass mouthpieces are almost universally silver plated.  If you own a high quality brass instrument and mouthpiece and the brass is properly coated, your risk of lead exposure is minimal.  But it’s not zero.

Denis Wick

I didn’t find further press releases from CEH at the time, but the industry took notice.  Most notably was Denis Wick, whose high-quality British mouthpieces were accused by CEH of being high in lead content.

Denis Wick mouthpieces wrote a short article about the measure of lead in brass mouthpieces and how that relates to Prop 65.

https://www.deniswick.com/our-new-warning-label-what-it-means-learn-about-lead-in-brass/

Wick’s conclusion is that silver plating on a brass mouthpiece does not completely eliminate lead exposure, but it’s within safe limits set by the state of California.  The State requires that the lead content be measured without the plating, though all Wick mouthpieces are silver plated.  That’s different from the door key lawsuit, where nickel plated brass keys do not require 1.5% low lead brass.

CA Prop 65

And this leads to Proposition 65, the 1986 California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.  This act required labeling of products and locations where exposure to known toxic chemicals may occur.  Prop 65 is the reason for the door key lawsuit and also the CEH mouthpiece lawsuit. You can read about Prop 65 here.


https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65


While well intentioned, the ubiquitous Prop 65 labels are now seen nearly everywhere in California because there’s always something nearby that may be toxic.  What’s important to remember is that a Prop 65 label doesn’t mean the product or location is dangerous, rather it’s a “right to know” label.  By knowing about possible hazards, you can make an informed decision.

I printed a new Prop 65 sign for the Horn Guys office.  My Prop 65 concerns here in the office include:

  • lead in brass instruments and mouthpieces
  • glue and fabrics in cases and gig bags
  • solvents in lubricants and polishes
  • dyes and tanning products in leathers
  • circuit boards and batteries in electronics

None of these products is out of the ordinary or especially dangerous, but our Prop 65 sign reminds us to take proper precautions and to use best health practices.

Here is an article about Prop 65 awareness and risks from Loma Linda University.

https://news.llu.edu/patient-care/california-s-cancer-warnings-what-are-real-risks

Solutions

How can we reduce our exposure to raw brass from our musical tools?  If you follow the same good behavior as for flu season or Covid season, Prop 65 season, rabbit season or duck season, you're ahead of the game.  It’s all general good health…

  • play a good quality instrument and mouthpiece to ensure the best metals
  • maintain the finish of your horn and mouthpiece
  • wash your hands before and after handling your horn
  • rinse your mouthpiece often
  • wipe off your horn after use
  • wipe off your face after use
  • during maintenance sessions wear protective gloves to reduce contact with raw brass tuning slides, leadpipes and lubricants
  • clean your horn regularly, including disassembly and rinsing in cool or warm water, then dry and re-lube

 

My favorite horn quick-clean is Spitballs.  These are small sponges soaked in cleaning solvent, sold in a jar of 20.  I press a sponge through the lead pipe with a pencil, insert the mouthpiece, press the valves down and blow the Spitball through the instrument.  You can remove the main tuning slide when Spitballing a tuba.  The first big cleaning of your instrument, do it by hand using a swab and brush, then maintain that high level with Spitballs.  An esteemed trumpet maker convinced me to look at these by saying:  “After each day of the trade show I blow Spitballs through all my trumpets.  At the end of the week the trumpets still look brand new inside.”

Further equipment ideas to reduce toxins...

  • Ivan Giddings stainless steel mouthpieces are lead free
  • Josef Klier mouthpieces are available with a Lexan rim
  • BERP Bio oils are petroleum-free and non-toxic
  • Superslick lubricants are generally non-toxic
  • Protec offers pouches and hand guards in both cow leather and “Vegan”