RoHS Chills Electronics Companies

Removal of Hazardous Substances (RoHS), a directive by the European Union (EU) that goes into effect on July 1, 2006, sounds like apple pie or motherhood—something that would be hard to argue against. And its expressed purpose of removing hazardous substances—lead and mercury, for example—from consumer products is assuredly a noble one.

Yet, mention RoHS to a specialty audio manufacturer and the air just might turn blue with intemperate language. "Do you know any way to visually examine for a cold solder joint if you're not using lead solder?" I heard one high-end manufacturer ask another recently.

"No," came the succinct response.

"Neither the bleep do I!" (Yes, he said bleep, but we knew what he meant.)

"And you know the worst part? I can't use lead-based solder on my circuit boards, but car batteries—which use about a million times more lead than a whole system of my stuff—are exempted from the regulation. Don't you suppose there's a lot more lead leaching into the environment from discarded auto batteries than from used tube amps?"

"That's pretty rich," added a cable manufacturer at the same table. "But what really gets me are the other exceptions." All eyes were now on him. "Infrastructure signaling systems are exempt. That means traffic-light control systems, military devices, and other 'essential' gear that can't risk being subjected to the unreliable lead-free solders."

"What about fillings?" chimed in the VP of a speaker company. "I have mercury in my mouth, but I can't have even a trace of it in my products? What kind of sense is that?"

Of course you know what happened next. I had to go and open my big mouth, "Surely you're not proposing that we junk environmental standards on products just because they're inconvenient?" Now all eyes were on me.

"Of course not," the solid-state manufacturer demurred. "But take the solder question. The amount of lead in a specialty audio product is less than five grams, which is infinitesimal compared to, yes, a car battery or the thousands of miles of glazed ceramic sewer lines buried around the world or the tons of picturesque glazed roofing tiles some countries are so proud of.

"But even that's not the real issue. Leaded solder melts at a low temperature and is reliable and simple to QC. All of the lead-free solders require 30–40 degrees more heat to melt and that heat represents energy consumption. It very well could be that eliminating lead in our products makes them more hazardous to the environment."

This brought in a new participant, the president of a highly respected Japanese manufacturer. "We've been looking at this in Japan since 1998, and by 2003, major Japanese companies removed more than 90% of the lead out of our products. But smaller manufacturers throughout Asia haven't complied yet—and we frankly wonder if they will. China says it's 100% RoHS compliant, but small manufacturers in Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan may just completely write off the First World markets and concentrate on places where price is the only criterion."

"Heck," said the tube manufacturer, "I might write off the European market myself. It doesn't represent sales to the extent that it makes economic sense to comply to the EU standards just for the prestige of selling over there."

"So why comply?"

"Because California has passed a law banning the use of heavy metals in components as of January 2007. You know that's just the start of it over here."

All: "Waiter! Another round—now!"