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.
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.
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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:
- Most brominated plastics (PBB, PBDE)
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.
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.