Boston Globe, June 1, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In Europe, the precautionary approach to toxic chemicals in electronic devices is driving innovation worldwide. Instead of "precautionary principle," you might call it the ingenuity principle.]

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff

A tough European Union law that limits toxic substances in electronic devices takes effect on July 1, and US companies that want to do business across the Atlantic are racing to comply, spending billions of dollars to redesign their products.

"This is probably the biggest change in electronics in 50 years," said George Wilkish, senior quality engineer at M/A-Com Inc., a business unit of Tyco Electronics Corp ., in Lowell that makes a variety of radio and microwave components for communications gear.

Many electronic devices, like computer circuit boards and cathode ray tubes, are crammed with substances that can cause serious health problems if ingested. Lead can cause brain damage and pregnancy complications, for example, and cadmium can cause kidney disease. To prevent these poisons from ending up in landfills, EU regulators took a two-tiered approach. A law that took effect last year requires electronics firms to recycle their products, and the EU also enacted RoHS -- the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive-- to eliminate lead, cadmium, mercury, and three other toxic chemicals from electronic devices.

The federal government sets no limits on the chemicals used in electronics, but the power of RoHS extends far beyond Europe.

US companies must comply to retain their European customers. And after spending millions to eliminate the substances, companies like M/A-Com, which makes about 20 percent of its sales in Europe , plan to sell their cleaner products not just to European clients, but also to customers in the rest of the world.

Dick Anderson, senior principal engineer at M/A-Com's research and development group, said the approximately $1 million cost of complying with the European law will be good for business.

"In addition to doing this because it's the law, we're doing it because it differentiates us," Anderson said. He figures that even US customers will choose M/A-Com's components over those made by rivals who haven't been as quick to clean up.

Other Massachusetts technology firms don't think they'll profit from obeying the European standard because they expect their competitors to comply as well. "There's no economic benefit we can derive from this," said Denny Lane, director of product management at Stratus Technologies Inc. of Maynard, a maker of computers and data storage systems. "We can't say, 'We're green and you're not.' "

Still, Lane, who holds a degree in environmental biology, favors the EU standards, even though compliance has cost his company "hundreds of thousands" of dollars. "This is important," said Lane, "maybe not for my kids, but my kids' kids."

America's biggest consumer electronics firms are also committed to compliance. Leading desktop computer maker Dell Inc. says its product line is almost all Euro-ready. Apple Computer Inc. said that its iPod Nano and Shuffle music players meet the European standard and that all Apple products will comply with the EU regulations by July 1.

Many businesses won't reveal exactly how much they've spent on RoHS compliance. But Pamela Gordon, president of Technology Forecasters Inc., a consulting firm in Alameda, Calif., estimates that US electronics firms will spend a total of $3.5 billion.

Kenneth Stanvick, senior vice president and co-founder of Design Chain Associates LLC in Pelham, N.H., said that some smaller electronics firms haven't complied with the EU regulations, and hope to slip past European regulators undetected. "It's risk management," he said. "What are my chances of getting caught?"

But the odds against scofflaws will only get worse. China plans to enforce an even stricter law beginning next March; South Korea will set similar standards starting next July. And California has enacted its own standards, which take effect in January.

Attempts to evade government regulations are a waste of time, said Gordon of Technology Forecasters, "The astute electronics industry executive realizes that environmental requirements are here," Gordon said. "They're not going anywhere--they're going global."

Compliance with the new EU rule has not been easy. Boston modem maker Zoom Technologies Inc. had to cancel a new product planned for the European market because it couldn't be made in compliance with the law.

"It turns out there's this one chip that we can't get," said Zoom president Frank Manning . The only available version of the vital chip contained toxic chemicals, and Zoom's order wouldn't have been large enough for its maker to justify making a clean version.

A half-century ago, new soldering techniques enabled the mass production of today's cheap electronic equipment. Today, the challenge is to keep producing a vast array of electronic devices without depending on lead solder. The alternatives, mostly based on tin, require far hotter temperatures, which in turn can cause circuit boards and other components to melt or crack. Switching to tin solder not only requires new soldering gear, but also product redesigns, and exhaustive testing of the finished components. At M/A-Com, engineers test the lead-free components under vibration and extreme heat and cold , then study the results under microscopes, in search of fatal defects just a few microns in size.

Even so, tin solder still isn't as reliable as lead. So lead solder is still permitted in devices with military and aerospace applications, and in heavy-duty computer servers made by companies such as Stratus. Even these exceptions will be reviewed every four years -- and eliminated when European authorities judge that lead-free solders have become more reliable.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

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