UK scientist researches IT hazards for EC

Should lead solder be banned from servers and routers? Dr Paul Goodman has prepared evidence for the EU committee that is set to decide which hazardous substances should be outlawed

The European Commission will rule next week which technologies should be exempt from the Restrictions of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive.

The EC's Technical Adaptation Committee (TAC) is scheduled to meet on 22 October to decide whether manufacturers should be allowed to continue with techniques such as the use of lead-based solder in high-end networking kit, or mercury in some lamps.

Dr Paul Goodman of ERA Technology, which has been commissioned by the EC to assess the validity of 11 separate exemptions, said on Wednesday that the deadline for his work been brought forward to allow the committee to make an informed vote next week.

The RoHS directive will come into force in 1 July, 2006. It will restrict the use of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium and the flame retardants PBB and PBDE from many times of electrical equipment. TAC is responsible for implementing the directive.

A number of IT manufacturers, though, claim that they should be granted an exemption from the RoHS.

Several of the exemptions that TAC will vote on next week refer to the use of lead-based solder in technologies such as servers, network infrastructure, some microprocessors and 'flip chips' -- a way of attaching chips without wires. Others refer to the use of mercury in straight fluorescent lamps, lead and cadmium in optical and filter glass, or lead as a 'coating material for thermal conduction module C-ring'.

Given that the substances in question are all known to be damaging to the health of humans and/or the wider environment, it may appear surprising that exemptions are under discussion at all. But the manufacturers argue that they are needed. To win an exemption, manufacturers must prove either that there isn't a suitable alternative to their current practices, or that the alternatives have reliability issues or also damage the environment.

Cost can only be a factor if the alternative substance would mean a significant increase on the cost of making an end product, not merely one component.

Some manufacturers of servers and switches used in telephone systems and the Internet argue that they should be allowed to continue using lead-based solders, because there are still reliability concerns about the lead-free flavour.

"In theory, they could use lead-free solder, but there are concerns about its long-term performance," said Dr Goodman

"There could be a potential risk to consumer safety. If a public telephone system fails then people can't call for the police or an ambulance."

Makers of straight fluorescent lamps that incorporate mercury have their own argument for being allowed to continue.

"One proposed alternative to mercury in lamps is xenon. But, xenon lamps use twice as much power as mercury ones. The extra power demand could cause global warming. You also have the problem that when you burn coal, and to a lesser extent oil, you release mercury into the environment," said Dr Goodman, illustrating what a difficult decision TAC must take.

Dr Goodman will present TAC with a scientific evaluation of each exemption that is being sought. His said that his gut feeling is that the majority of the exemptions will be approved, but insisted that he doesn't know how the committee -- many of whose members come from the environmental departments of EC member states -- will assess each case.