Lead Solder Scare Campaign Threatens Computer Prices, Performance

Published April 1, 2005

Recognizing the essential role of computers in today’s Information Age, government officials from California to Pennsylvania are calling for more widespread availability of affordable computers for adults and schoolchildren alike. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Philadelphia Mayor John Street, for example, have recently voiced their support for free computer and Internet access for their citizens.

At the same time, however, environmental extremist groups are waging a scare campaign that threatens to erode computer performance and drive up prices well beyond the means of many Americans.

Soldering Essential, Under Fire

At the heart of the scare campaign is lead-based soldering (pronounced “soddering”). Soldering is the process of heating a lead-tin alloy to its melting point, which then forms a pliable metal paste that binds essential computer circuitry components together.

The lead in the lead-tin alloy is essential to solder performance. While it is possible to solder with other metals, lead carries crucial and unique advantages over the alternatives.

Lead-tin alloy melts at the relatively low temperature of 183 degrees Celsius. Other metal alloys must reach at least 206 degrees to melt. Soldering at the higher temperatures can damage computer circuitry components.

Lead also prevents tin particles from forming beard-like whiskers that cause short-circuiting and damage to other circuitry components, and it has the advantage of being abundant and far less expensive than alternative metals such as copper and silver.

False Fears Spreading

Activist groups, however, have mounted a scare campaign to ban lead in solder material. They note that lead is toxic to humans, and as consumers buy newer computers and discard their old ones, more lead is entering landfills. As computers with lead solder accumulate in landfills, they argue, it becomes more likely that lead will contaminate groundwater and endanger human health.

Experts say that argument is flawed.

  • Lead solder is an insignificant source of lead. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lead solder represents less than 1 percent of U.S. lead consumption and lead disposal in landfills.
  • Computers are not increasingly entering U.S. landfills. The National Safety Council reports most computer users keep their obsolete computers, sell them to used computer dealers, or trade them in for a monetary credit toward their new computer purchase.
  • Lead is a stable metal. According to the Electronic Industry Alliance’s Environment Consumer Education Initiative, lead rarely leaves its computer shell even after entering a landfill.
  • Modern landfill liners and other landfill technologies make it unlikely lead would leak out of a landfill into groundwater. “Landfills are built today with thick, puncture-resistant liners that keep waste from coming into contact with soil and groundwater,” notes Competitive Enterprise Institute adjunct scholar Dana Joel Gattuso. Existing landfill monitoring stations would quickly identify for cleanup any lead that were to leak from a landfill in the extremely unlikely event of escape.

Studies conducted by the Solid Waste Association of North America, EPA, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have concluded that lead in landfills poses minimal health risk.

Circumventing Science

With science–and particularly the findings of EPA and HHS–dooming the chances of enacting federal laws or regulations to ban lead soldering, the activist groups are taking their scare campaign to state legislatures.

Hoping to piece together a patchwork of state laws and regulations to circumvent the federal government’s decision not to restrict lead solder, activists during the 2003-2004 legislative sessions succeeded in banning lead soldering in new computers sold in California and Maine. Legislation to ban, restrict, or force expensive mandatory recycling of lead soldering was introduced in an additional nine states. Still other states created committees to study and consider such restrictions.

Although most of the proposed restrictions were defeated, the activist groups have continued to wage a war of scaremongering and disinformation.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.