Features

Get the lead out

Business | Mindless environmentalism threatens to undermine electronics industry

Issue: "A few good men," May 6, 2006

Environmentalists will cheer July 1 with the advent of the European Union's RoHS Directive, legislation banning hazardous materials in electronic devices sold throughout Europe. Many uninformed mothers may applaud also as their children's handheld gaming units and MP3 players boast new safety standards and can safely be called "green."

But manufacturers worldwide, including many in the United States, are pumping billions of dollars into testing new materials and converting assembly lines on a whim of ecological alarmism. The inclusion of lead among the banned substances renders the EU directive especially broad: Global use of tin-lead solder in electronics totals close to 200 million pounds per year.

Conservative estimates suggest such an industry-wide overhaul will increase consumer prices 10 percent as companies seek to recover the massive financial losses needed for conversion to lead-free alternatives. Meanwhile, product reliability could plummet.

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Nor will the swap yield its supposed environmental benefits. An EPA report last year found that the ecological impact of tin-lead solder is often less than that of its most common lead-free replacements. What's more, the electronics industry accounts for less than 2 percent of the world's total lead use.

Such an environmentally impotent move and its accompanying economic headaches-while managed quietly by special interests in Brussels -holds striking similarities to the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions that suffocates economies without accomplishing its aim.

John Burke, an electronics engineer with close to three decades of experience, is baffled by the RoHS legislation. The senior manager of Optichron, an electrical components manufacturer in Fremont, Calif., holds no economic interest in decrying the EU directive but told WORLD, "There is absolutely no evidence that there is any reason for taking lead out of solder. There was no reason to do it in the first place, the replacement is ecologically more damaging, and, by the way, the replacement is less reliable."

Mr. Burke believes the well-placed fervor of removing oxidized lead from gasoline and paint bubbled over into an illogical anti-lead bias in solder, where no inhalation danger exists. Large companies have been reticent to speak out against the EU action for fear of public scorn as pro-lead and anti-green.

IPC, a leading U.S. electronics association, has maintained a seemingly contradictory two-pronged stance on lead-free reform since the late 1990s: First, no evidence exists to suggest tin-lead solder is environmentally harmful. Second, the pressure to ban lead is so prevalent and unyielding that companies should do it, anyway. IPC vice president Dave Bergman explained: "Who's going to go to a legislator and say, 'I need to have lead in here, and it's more environmentally friendly'? Who's going to talk to a kid's mom with his electronic toy and say, 'It's better to have lead in there'? Nobody's going to do that."

But a chorus of independent voices is making noise. Gordon Davy, an engineer for defense systems producer Northrop Grumman, told WORLD the July 1 lead-free deadline will usher in an array of unintended consequences: "It's very clear that most manufacturers are not going to be compliant. It seems increasingly likely that the European Parliament has passed a law which simply is not enforceable."

Forecasts range widely on what impact such enforcement difficulties pose. Mr. Davy fears the potential for rampant lawsuits as companies with large financial investment in compliance seek damages when incompliant competitors are not sufficiently punished. Scotland native Brian Ellis, a self-proclaimed environmentalist and engineer with 50 years of manufacturing experience, says it could take several years for enforcement to take hold, and, if the European Parliament is unable to enforce the directive, it could face a crisis of credibility.

Whatever the legal or political fallout, one point finds broad agreement among industry engineers: Buy your DVD players, gaming systems, and laptops before July. "I would not put a lead-free assembly into my daughter's or wife's anti-lock brake circuit," Mr. Burke said, noting that the RoHS directive tellingly excludes critical categories such as automobiles, telecommunications infrastructure, and military devices. "I already bought my iPods for Christmas."

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