Regular blog reader Sammy Epstein emailed me a very interesting question
You wrote about meeting with the Babbitt guy at NAMM, and that the old Slant Sigs were made with a substance that is toxic...do you know what that substance is?....and...Do you know whether it is toxic to the worker making the mpc (because of toxic dust)?....or....Whether the substance is toxic to mouthpiece users, by leaching toxic substances from the mouthpiece to the player through saliva? It would be nice to know that players aren't being poisoned by playing Slant Sig mpcs! Thanks in advance. Your blog is great...I'm continually finding the really good stuff on it that you are so generous in providing. Hope all is well...Best, Sammy"
When I first heard that the reason mouthpiece makers couldn't make the great vintage style hard rubber anymore was because some of the compounds were toxic I really didn't even consider the rather obvious question.....is my Slant Link poisoning me?!?!
|Tapping a rubber tree|
I called Jim Greene, head of manufacturing at jj Babbitt, for some answers. Jim told me that mouthpiece rubber dust has a lot of different fillers added to it in order to get it to break down and some of these fillers are not available anymore. He wasn't specific about what exactly these fillers were and why they're not made anymore, but he did say that it was because the EPA passed laws that made it impossible to manufacture the stuff in this country anymore. He thought that it might still be possible to make the fillers in a country with less restrictive environmental laws, like Mexico or China, but that it would be too expensive because there was so little demand for hard rubber these days. Green said that Germany doesn't have the restrictive laws that we do and could make better rubber, but they use a totally different mouthpiece manufacturing method known as extruding, whereas we use molding.
Back in the golden years of mouthpieces when the Slant Links and NY Meyers were being made there was a still a huge demand for rubber. Rubber was used in printing press rollers, bowling balls, and a thousand other products. Today most rubber is used to make tires, rubber bands and little else. Tire rubber does not require the same fillers to manufacture as good mouthpiece rubber. So there is no big demand for good hard rubber anymore.
It would still be cost prohibitive for a Babbitt to set up shop in Malaysia, even if they hired a bunch of 10 year old kids and make the Slant Sigs. Jim told me that he has looked into buying the hammer mill that would be needed to grind the rubber dust needed to make their own hard rubber in order to have more control over the materials, but hammer mills are insanely expensive and then you also need to buy air scrubbing machines as well.
Back to Sammy's question about getting slowly poisoned by playing a Slant Link.....
Jim claims that the finished vintage rubber pieces do not leach out toxins (of course he would have to say that). Once they are molded the compound changes and sets. Any discoloration is simply aging, not leaching. If you want your piece to stay new looking then you can try rubbing it with oil once in a while.