RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) is a piece of legislation created by the EU to reduce the harmful effects of dangerous substances to people and the environment. Here's why it's important to EEs!

The Beginnings of RoHS

RoHS has its roots in the European Union back in 2003. The goal of RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) is to reduce the environmental effect and health impact of electronics. The legislation's primary purpose is to make electronics manufacturing safer at every stage of an electronic device's life cycle.

Of course, there are individuals and even large-scale distributors who continue to use non-RoHS parts (I am guilty of this). This is because RoHS compliance can be difficult to fully comprehend and is generally inconvenient and expensive even at the governmental level.

Why should we as individuals and businesses alike care about RoHS? Why should we have to pay more for our projects and consumer goods instead of getting cheaper components because they are not RoHS compliant?

In the past, this was a question of ethics and—let’s face it—most of us have gone for the cheaper, non-RoHS option because we cry when we open our wallets to pay for the more expensive lead-free solder.

Using non-RoHS parts is now a legal matter: you have to use RoHS parts for any product that will sell in the EU. This is because all EU products have to conform to the European standards, denoted by the CE mark on European products, if they are to be sold.

 

Seen this before? This is the European conformity symbol for products. Image courtesy of Euronews.

 

At the end of the day, the decision comes down to you as a maker. But before you fill your basket with a kilogram of lead-based, non-RoHS components, read this article and see if you still feel the same way.

 

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Why Was RoHS Introduced?

Most governments try to collect as much tax revenue as they can. For example, in most cases, as your wage increases so does your income tax. Governments also attempt to create laws that will help reduce public spending, such as obesity awareness to reduce stress on hospitals. RoHS, however, does not save governments money in any immediate sense and, in fact, can have a negative monetary impact on many businesses both large and small. So why was it introduced?

RoHS was introduced to improve the welfare of consumers, distributors, manufacturers, and the environment. Since the early 20th century, chemicals have been introduced into manufacturing for their useful properties such as the luminescence of radium or the low melting point of 60/40 lead-tin alloy. Due to their relatively recent introduction into production use, the harmful effects of such chemicals has not been widely understood (if at all), which has resulted in years of unnecessary exposure of both people and the environment to dangerous materials.

 

Read More : How will Brexit affect the electronics industry?

 

A classic example of such a chemical is asbestos. It is incredibly easy to mine, easy to use, and has very useful properties as a fire retardant. But, unknown to the general public at the time, asbestos is a highly dangerous carcinogenic when machined into dust (from a power tool, for example) and then breathed in. This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of individuals exhibiting adverse health conditions such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

In response to such problems, the EU has been introducing legislation to try to reduce the use of harmful substances. On January 27th, 2003, the European Union created the RoHS directive 2002/95/EC, which prevents the use of harmful substances in products.

 

How Does This Affect Me?

RoHS is there for your own safety, plain and simple. While you may believe that there is no immediate threat from substances such as lead and beryllium oxide, the issue with such chemicals is their long term exposure. Simply washing your hands does not remove the negative effects of these substances because exposure is not limited to consumption.

Exposure to a chemical is when your body is in physical contact with said chemical, which includes holding it with bare hands.

The biggest non-RoHS chemicals are:

  • Lead
  • Cadmium
  • Mercury
  • Most brominated plastics (PBB, PBDE)

 

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Even if you do not agree with RoHS, you have to comply—especially if you sell products in the EU market. All EU products, aside from select exemptions, have to conform to CE. A company found to be selling non-compliant parts will be prosecuted, fined, and can even face the possibility of imprisonment.

Still, there is sometimes resistance to RoHS compliance, often because it is costly to a manufacturing business. Besides the initial costs of changing a company's standards, which can be substantial, continual effort must be made to maintain compliance. The combination of RoHS-compliant implementation and maintenance can be extremely expensive—millions of dollars, in some cases.

What about private use? What about repairs? Fixing an old TV with lead solder is fine if the TV is for personal use, but if the repair is for a customer, then that solder HAS to be lead-free (unless the product was produced before the inclusion of the RoHS directive).

When it comes to individual people complying with RoHS, the logic is as follows: Why should a customer be exposed to a dangerous substance without their knowledge? Do we have the right to make such a decision for them?

 

Lead is a very dangerous heavy metal that has applications in industries all over the world. Image courtesy of L. Chang.

 

Secondary Impacts of Non-RoHS Parts

The customer isn't the only one affected by non-RoHS parts. For the part to arrive at their house, it has to be shipped and packaged, which is mostly done by hand (especially in countries such as China and India). The act of packaging puts employees at risk as they are exposed to harmful substances. For those employees to package the part, that part had to be manufactured, which again would exposes the workers who handle the part during manufacturing.

But the life of a non-RoHS part does not end at the final product. Once the product has been used and is no longer needed (broken, outdated, etc.), it is usually thrown away either to a recycling center or a landfill.

While workers in a recycling facility use protective equipment, a landfill is just a hole in the ground. As time goes by, water can carry trace amounts of the harmful substances and pollute the ground over time. Harmful substances don’t usually degrade (such as lead and mercury) and so continue to run through the ground. Eventually, they will find themselves in places such as the ocean and underground water reserves which can further pollute wildlife and food sources.

 

Harmful substances always find a way back into the environment. Image credit: Tupungato, courtesy of PollutionIssues.com.

 

A classic example of such pollution is with tuna. Tuna is a long-lived fish and, as a result, contains trace amounts of mercury and lead. This is the result of waste dumping into the oceans where fish that live longer have more time to absorb such harmful substances.

 

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The Final Word

Next time you wish to purchase a non-RoHS part, think about who made that part, who was exposed to hazardous materials during its production, and the life cycle of that part. Just because it’s cheap does not necessarily mean you should get it.

Even if you practice the proper health and safety precautions, it doesn't mean that the end user may do so as they could be unaware of the danger.

 

Comments

26 Comments


  • keepitsimplestupid 2016-10-18

    The throw-away cell phone market probably had a lot to do with the creating of ROHS.  For one thing, initially it was mostly a “consumer oriented” thing. Medical, aerospace and industrial stuff was exempt for a while.

    • Robin Mitchell 2016-10-28

      Consumerism has created the problem in general. In my opinion only medical and military should have the right to use such substances.

  • adx 2016-10-27

    I disagree with the article. The dangers of lead were widely overstated at the time the law was brought in. It is not extremely toxic, it is not highly radioactive (as the picture suggests), it is not hazardous to handle a consumer product made with lead solder, it hardly leaches into the environment from landfills, it is widely used in much higher volumes in things like car batteries, and usually doesn’t cause health problems even when water pipes are made of it. Granted, non-ideal to munch on, but blowing dangers out of all proportion is the real danger. For example, I eat a fairly large server blade, I don’t get sick. I conclude they don’t have lead so they can be freely eaten. I slowly get lead poisoning, and need chelation therapy (which is a walk in the park compared to my diet).

    • Robin Mitchell 2016-10-28

      See my other comments for counter arguments but here is something:

      Chelation therapy is not a walk in the park and can result in death

  • pmd34 2016-10-28

    I whole heatedly agree with adx. In the UK in some of the victorian houses they are still finding, and replacing the lead water pipes, and have you ever even HEARD of someone with lead poisoning? There was one case in Australia and the only other person they could compare them to was Bach! And the replacement? Bucket loads of flux, to make the stuff flow, (with much more nasty chemicals in,) and brittle solder that just is simply not up to the job! Theres a very good reason why the military, medics, and space industry is lucky enough to be RoHS exempt!

    As to disposable electronics and all.. the amount of lead used is actually very small, plus the majority of people are responsible enough to recycle their old electronics. The ones that are disposed of by “other means” usually ends up being burnt, and then lead is the very least of your worries! Dioxins, arsenic, selenium, gallium!

    Sure lets tighten up the uses on cadmium and Mercury (perhaps it IS time to admit mercury is not really the best material to be used in fillings in the mouth).. but letting a bunch of EU bureaucrats ban lead is one step too far! Here’s to the end of the EU and its straight bananas!

  • Hank1228 2016-10-28

    Just more govenment intervention into our daily lives.  I have been using lead based solder all my life, I’m now 71, and it has had no effect.  Of course you need to use common sense like not breathing lead based solder fumes, use gloves if possible and wash you hands thoroughly after use.  This is just another version of the global warming BS.

    • Robin Mitchell 2016-10-28

      And I know a person who smokes and is in their 90s does that mean smoking is not harmful?

  • avayan 2016-10-28

    One thing that truly bugs me about this lead free matter is the fact that NOBODY has been able to explain to me how is it that having lead returning into the media is such a hassle for the human race. Are you telling me that before we started using lead it was all contained in bubbles where it was basically impossible for us to become in contact with it. Did we teleported all of our lead from a parallel dimension? Let’s face it! Lead became available in our planet (and ALL of our planet) long before “we” were primates. It has been here and will be here for a very long time. How is it that now it becomes dangerous for large bodies of water to grace it? I would love to understand the science behind this claim before blindly accepting that “oh yeah, it is so bad!”. BTW, I can see the claim that leaded fuel was a problem as atomizing lead so that it permeates our air seems like a tremendous way to cause some serious havoc. But the landfill logic eludes me. Looking forward to be enlightened!

    • Robin Mitchell 2016-10-28

      In the past the same was said about many things including general health and safety. There are many people these days ill (who are in their 50’s and older) because of exposure to harmful substances such as lead, asbestos and mercury. These things in small quantities are harmless to a degree but their danger is long term exposure that builds up. For example, lead, once it enters the system, is near impossible to remove so using lead solder once or twice is OK but use it constantly and eventually you will get a build up in your system that can lead to cancer etc.

      There are individuals who believe that because they are 70 and used such stuff that it can’t be harmful, this is an incredibly ignorant thing to do with such a small sample size. I know people who have smoked and lived to 90! Just because some individuals are lucky enough not to have gotten ill does not mean that lead is safe. You also have to take into consideration the customer who is unaware of the risk. You may use lead solder and wash our hands after to prevent exposure but a customer may have no idea and be exposed to harmful substances over time.

      In terms of landfills you have to understand that landfills are just earth and soil underneath. They are not isolated blocks of concrete that get rubbish put in which means everytime it rains, chemicals and substances can be washed into the ground which pollutes that plot of land. But it does not stop there. As time progresses rainwater can wash these chemicals into underground water reserves and streams which either lead to the sea, rivers, other land or even a drinking water reservoir.

      There are other elements on this planet that have been here for a long time such as Uranium, Radon, Mercury, copper etc. You would not want to consume any of these (especially Radon). Such things are usually safe until we, people, get them out of the ground. Crude oil is another example, that stuff is very carcinogenic.

      You may agree with this article or not but the following facts are true:
      1) Human pollution has resulted in high levels of heavy metals in long lived fish
      2) Lead is poisonous and is being phased out for a reason
      3) Companies have been known to hide critical information about health and safety (American companies kept studies about asbestos secret)
      4) It cant do any harm replacing harmful substances with non-toxic varieties
      5) Heavy metals don’t disappear, they linger for a very…long….time

      • mikewax 2016-10-29

        i believe that it can do quite a bit of harm replacing not harmful substances with equally not harmful substances.
        millions of people in this country will never be able to own their own home because ludicrous building codes inflate the cost. millions cannot drive a car because insurance rates are out of control. why do life-saving drugs cost so much, and how many die every year for want of them?
        of course, unless you’re poor you have no reason to ever think about these things. about the countless “hidden” costs that are tacked onto virtually everything we buy. everything we need.
        how many poor people, just barely hanging on, get kicked out of the only dwelling they can afford because some inspector found out they were living in a garage? millions of people would not be homeless if housing costs were not so extreme.
        so a cell phone is not a life-saving drug, that’s true. but my point is the principle of it, the logic of well-meant regulations that exact a cumulative and horrific cost on the poor.
        notice the author doesn’t anywhere give any examples of any real harm that’s ever been done by these “harmful” substances. no studies, no data at all.
        i am not in the habit of EATING my electronics. if i was a TV repair man, i’d have to warn my customers “don’t eat your TV”
        countless times i’ve made repairs that would not have been possible with lead-free solder. i would’ve had to through the shit away.
        yes lead is extremely toxic. small children can get permanent brain damage. but small children don’t fix TVs, and the fumes from the flux are a thousand times more toxic than the lead. and they’re not very toxic.
        in the forties, people died in the manufacture of lead. and when they figured out why, they figured out how to stop getting sick.
        nobody ever looks at the big picture.

      • pmd34 2016-10-29

        How many years were we all breathing in lead fumes from petrol in cars.. and the number of people with lead poisoning? Compare that with the likelihood of ingestion or inhalation of lead from solder! As to heavy metals in fish, indeed there are more sources about, but there was a case where tests were done the historical remains of a (very) old tuna, which predated use of heavy metals. Scientists were rather alarmed to find it had just as “dangerously high” levels of mercury as those of today. And er… well why is it (maybe) in the fish anyhow, maybe it would be better stopping such things getting into the food chain with better recycling?
        As to your comment about replacing lead with “non-toxic” varieties.. show me the evidence?! You sure tin is not toxic? And to get the new naff solder to work you have to use so many other additives and THEN clean them off with yet more chemicals. In addition the reliability of the electronics is so poor that it means the lifetime of them is reduced! A typical failure such as the USB socket on something coming off the PCB it was RoHS “soldered” to.. Ive seen dozens of cases.

      • swr999 2016-10-29

        “...  but a customer may have no idea and be exposed to harmful substances over time.”

        A customer presumably would have to open up an electric device, rub their hands over the lead-containing solder on the circuit board, and then lick their hands, to get their lead exposure. Many devices have the disclaimer “No user-serviceable parts inside” so customers shouldn’t open their devices and fondle the insides. Or at least wash their hands afterwards.

        I do think that RoHS is a good idea on balance, but lets use real-world examples of how exposure to RoHS substances occurs. My understanding for lead is that the main RoHS focus is on reducing lead content at disposal time of electronic devices.

  • bgrahams 2016-10-28

    I too believe that LEAD is not as dangerous as made out to be.  I also believe that many things are put into place to make somebody some where extra money.  I also know that tin whiskers is a real problem.  Since going to lead free solder the connections are less reliable, tin whiskers have formed, space shuttle and station failures have been attributed to this.  I too do not agree with everything in this article.  Most of the ROHS, WEEE, CE directives are directed at keeping business in Europe not preserving the world.

    • Robin Mitchell 2016-10-28

      Please provide evidence of solder connections being the cause of space shuttle and station failures. If we are talking about the space shuttle I can assure you the only two fatal accidents were caused by A) an damaged O-ring and B) a piece of insulation foam.

  • Windstang 2016-10-28

    I replaced my hot water tank/copper water pipes using lead-free solder. EVERY joint leaked. Yes I do know how to solder and every joint was sanded clean and properly fluxed. At first I wondered why the joints leaked until I looked at the solder roll and say it was lead free. So - I took the piping all apart and re-did it with ‘regular’ solder and all was good. The sales guy at the store said a ‘special’ technique was required using lead free solder. I only buy leaded solder now. I also wonder about the longevity of the joints with lead free - assuming you can get them to hold in the first place. My mother in law also once commented about the paint on the window sills not holding up as long as it used to since they took the lead out. She is 93 now so for some reason wasn’t poisoned by those windows painted with leaded paint. Yeah - don’t eat it - but to ruin products because a kid or 2 chews on window frames is over kill IMO.

    • Robin Mitchell 2016-10-28

      Refer to other comments.

      My dad has been up ladders quite a few times and has never fallen off, therefore ladders are safe. I have use crafting knives for 6 years now and have never cut myself so they must be safe. I have wired electrics in my house and I have never been shocked so therefore, electricity must be safe. NEVER EVER base your sample size on one person.

      Also, if your pipes leaked, you did not do it correctly. That’s why when you need plumbing work done, call a plumber.

    • mikewax 2016-10-29

      i’ve never had that problem with silver solder, although there’ve been many times when i’ve used leaded solder on difficult joints to help get the silver solder to wick into the joint.
      a common problem i’ve seen for less experienced plumbers is over sanding the copper surface. the gap between surfaces is too big.

    • swr999 2016-10-29

      I believe the military wants lead solder for reliability. Solder whiskers.

  • a.schoenherr 2016-10-28

    ROHS makes sense in some cases, but when you talk about soldering, I feel you don’t know what your talking about.
      A Major reason that lead-free solder is NOT used is there is STILL NO SOLUTION for the forming of Tin Whiskers, this caused the failure of Galaxy IV satellite for example. it’s expedited by mechanical and temperature stresses. and theres a method of failure in space where a tin whisker short circuit actually vaporizes forming a plasma arc, which can conduct MUCH more current.

    so in response to the comment by bgrahams, this won’t occur on the space shuttle or ISS because no rocket surgeon (had to do it) would ever use lead-free solder on a project meant for space with any voltage. NASA has explored
    https://nepp.nasa.gov/whisker./reference/tech_papers/2011-kostic-Pb-free.pdf (NASA document on Lead-free)
    see page 56 for NASA explicitly talking about issues on the Space Shuttle related to tin whiskers

    Remember Toyota’s accelerator recall a few years ago? TIN WHISKERS! (also in the nasa document).

    in RF circuits tin whiskers can actually act as antenna’s and add reactance and as a result reflections, etc. for systems such as terahertz body scanners, it can be a non-starter.

    also a side note: Military is Exempted, Medical is NOT (except defibrillators, which are until 2021).

    • a.schoenherr 2016-10-28

      also there have been pacemaker recalls over Tin Whiskers. talk about something you don’t want to have to return/recall…

      • Robin Mitchell 2016-10-29

        That sattellite did not have its conformal coating applied correctly which resulted in the tin whiskers forming.

  • adx 2016-10-28

    Some quick answers:

    My answer to chelation therapy was in comparison to someone who believes eating server blades is healthy. Ie, a ridiculous example for a ridiculous problem. AFAIK chelation therapy is relatively safe if carried out properly (even with ETDA), but is unable to fix damage already done of course, and it is slow so is unable to reliably deal with ongoing exposure.

    I agree exposure to harmful substances over long periods is insidious and has unknown risks. Concerns over lead exposure from ownership of consumer products is not one of those things. Lead is already in the environment, and the science behind leaching and waste streams and fuel is well established. There is not actually a “sample size of one” effect. They know what is and isn’t a practical problem.

    In spite of this, in my opinion they brought in laws basically so that they can burn cellphones in bulk and not have to worry about emissions, like say from a car battery reprocessing facility. In some ways it’s bureaucratic madness gone crazy, in others it has some basis but far more good could be done by putting the effort into something more dangerous. The electronics industry was simply a sitting duck for the legislators, unlike say coal and oil and tobacco industries which have layers of lobbyists. The lead restrictions are nearly 100% political, it’s well known not to be backed by science.

    I generally agree with 1, 2 and 3 (mercury in fish, lead being poisonous, corporate coverups) but not 4 and 5. You present no evidence that replacing harmful substances can’t do any harm, another poster mentions Toyota’s accelerator recall (I didn’t know that tin whiskers were involved until I looked). An argument that heavy metals don’t disappear is meaningless because it suggests they were always there and always will be.

    Tin whiskers are less of a problem with portable electronics, which tends to break them off before they get extremely long. Space agencies are pushing for the use of consumer products, and in this environment tin whiskers can grow unabated, and have been responsible for failures (not cataclysmic explosions and death, but a camera or sensor unexpectedly failing).

    Solder fumes actually have very little metal in them. The main health risk arises from the size of the particles and some components of the fluxes. A hobbyist with a bad habit of chewing on solder is probably not in any danger of getting any sort of lead poisoning, yet a child playing in dirt where 50 years ago someone had spilled a whole bag of lead pesticide, might get lead poisoning fairly quickly. Such exposures are easy to measure, difficult to foresee. Widespread lead poisoning is almost a non-issue since the removal of lead from petrol.

    I agree there are health concerns, as with all substances (even pure water), but I fundamentally disagree with ideologically-based knee-jerk reactions and unnecessarily biased reporting, however well meaning this might be. Therefore I still disagree.

    • Robin Mitchell 2016-10-29

      You are focusing on lead solder too much. Lead solder involves mining and processing of lead which risks putting it into the environment.

      At the end of the day, if there is a viable alternative (lead free) then it should be used instead.

      • pmd34 2016-10-29

        And there you sum it up wonderfully “if there is a viable [non-toxic (?!)] alternative (lead free) then it should be used instead” ... I dont think anyone here would disagree with that. BUT.. fact is there isnt one!

    • adx 2016-10-29

      Car batteries use over 100 times the amount of lead as electronic solders, even at the peak of lead solder use electronics was an insignificant use.

      I disagree with simplistic one-sided fear-based arguments such as yours. All materials are hazardous to some degree, as are all processes. A viable alternative may turn out to be worse. Decisions based on fear are one way to invite this. Your article shows a pile of blocks used as a radiation shield complete with a “CAUTION RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL” sticker and a caption “Lead is a very dangerous heavy metal…” when it is actually providing safety (if it is lead). Maybe you’re just trolling because at first I thought it was a joke, to drum up support for the reintroduction of lead solder in the UK, and was wondering about the Brexit connection. If so you’ve done well, judging by the replies in these comments. If not, I really don’t know what else to say.

  • adx 2016-10-28

    I meant EDTA.