The use of brass is always a controversial topic, yet no matter how frequently it comes up people still ignore the very negative side effects related to using it in a still. This is something that is brought up so frequently yet no definitive answer, which I personally think is very important since were talking about something that can poison, cause cancer and cause long term health issues. Every time brass comes up in discussion there are always 3 sides to the topic.
Personally I am against using any brass in a still or boiler besides for irrigation fittings used for cooling or for decorative and cosmetic needs. Copper or stainless steel parts are not much more expensive and remove all worries about the lead levels you would be exposed to. My main reasons for being against brass use are:
To start here is the information from the EPA on "lead free", and use of brass, and what is covered.
1417(d), "lead free" means that solders and flux may not contain more than 0.2% lead. pipes, pipe fittings, and well pumps may not contain more than 8.0% lead.
So from the start we can all agree that lead free isn't lead free. Its like "unlimited calls" or unlimited bandwidth". Lead free still contains lead period. Only items used in water consumption and more specifically end points are required to have less then 8% lead. Non-end point components can have more. This is important to know later on.
Here are some important details from the link above that the EPA discuss and I want to address
The amount of lead attributable to corrosion by-products in the water depends on a number of factors, including the amount and age of lead bearing materials susceptible to corrosion, the way they were manufactured, how long the water is in contact with the lead containing surfaces, and how corrosive the water is toward these materials. The corrosivity of water is influenced by a number of factors, including acidity, alkalinity, dissolved solids and hardness. In general, soft acidic waters are more corrosive to lead than hard waters.
Yes, any plumbing device or fixture, domestically produced or imported, that contains any amount of lead and is in contact with the water is a potential source of contamination. Brass fittings and plumbing fixtures, containing 8.0 percent or less lead, have been found to contribute high lead levels for a considerable period of time after their installation, even in cases where these devices are in contact with relatively non-corrosive waters.
NSF Standard 61, section 9 covers "endpoint devices." The NSF Standard defines endpoint devices as mechanical plumbing devices, components, and materials which are typically installed within the last liter of the distribution system and are intended by the manufacturer to dispense water for human ingestion. The devices include kitchen and bar faucets, lavatory faucets, water dispensers, drinking fountains, water coolers, glass fillers, residential refrigerator ice makers, supply stops and endpoint control valves. These devices are regulated under section 1417(e) of the SDWA. For details, refer to Part IV of this document. Products that are NOT COVERED under NSF Standard 61, Section 9 include in-line devices, point of use and point of entry water treatment devices, bath and shower valves, drains, backflow preventers, utility, laundry, bidet, self closing or electronic faucets, faucets with hose thread spout, and non lavatory hand wash stations.
Now you might be saying well all brass items that have high lead in them will be listed as such or have a warning right? Well not really. Here is a perfect example from the Home depot website, which does list some info, but you will not see this in the store.
3/4 in. x 3/4 in. Brass NPT Compression FittingYou might recognize this as something similar used in the potstill design in the side bar. In the product listing you'll see "California residents: see Proposition 65 information " listed in the overview. Prop 65 wants this item to be listed (only in California) "California's Proposition 65 entitles California consumers to special warnings for certain products that contain chemicals above certain threshold levels." The general Proposition 65 notice is as follows: "WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm."
You know those brass valves you use in your Boka? Here is a listing from the EPA about valves:
Are valves dispensing water from point of use treatment devices covered under the "lead free" definition of the SDWA? Point of use a water treatment devices are not covered under NSF Standard 61, Section 9. Therefore only the 8.0 percent lead free criterion is applicable to them. Point of use treatment devices are tested and certified under NSF Standard 58. Thus, while EPA encourages the industry to conform with this standard, the industry is not currently required to do so.In fact doing a google site search for homedepot.com and brass fittings California residents lists 65,800 listings.
Study of lead leeching of "lead free" and leaded brass
Initially, the leaded-brass components leached about 8.5 times as much lead as the ‘‘no-lead’’ parts, and by Day 19, the leaded-brass were on average discharging about 14 times more lead. It is likely that ultimately, as initially-available surface lead is dissolved, that the discharge may reach the 50 to 70 fold ratioNew school built found their brass to contain up to 18%-20% lead, and 30 times the federal standards, and they specifically went into the construction with wanting to keep lead levels minimal.
One of the excuse I see all the time is that lead is not solvable or make it to your final product as long as it is not in your distillate path. But lead can have a major impact on your yeast , in both cell growth upwards of 50% decreases, as well as off flavoring. And if you use dunder or backset distillers can very easily transfer lead from their boiler to their next fermentation.
Additionally lead can have negative affects on yeast in both their cell growth (upwards of 50%) and cause yeas to generate off flavors. If you use backset or dunder you will pass lead from boiler to fermenter frequently.
All brass has lead. The amount of lead in specific fittings for a specific purpose (water consumption) have "acceptable" levels of lead after a period of time (weeks, months), but still require you to flush the water that has been in contact with the brass (which is why you're supposed to run your faucet for a few seconds prior to drinking). But not all brass fittings are considered safe as seen with California wanting warning labels on these items. And since there is no way to regulate, test or know for sure how much lead is used there are many cases of lead levels being insanely high.
I say this all the time; you don't see brass used in professional distilleries and as hobbyists following the best practices of professionals is something we should all strive for. Making safe spirits should be everyone's goals, and to save a few dollars to use brass is not an acceptable choice especially if you are not the only person drinking your spirits.