Save the whales … not the lead!

By Mark Diorio

During the first week of November each year, Japanese whaling vessels leave the ports of Hiroshima and Yamaguchi in western Japan bound for the Antarctic to catch another haul of Minke whales. These ships eventually move into the North Pacific for additional whale hunting. Where are they going? Into the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary – a place designated by International Law for the protection of all whale species. The Antarctic is also protected by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, but this apparently mattered little to whalers who killed a reported 440 whales in this region alone last season.

In addition to commercial whaling efforts, Japan spends some $35 to 40 million annually for “whale research.” This research amounts to little more than killing additional whales (of various species) whose meat does indeed get sold into the Japanese marketplace (documented by both Earthtrust and Greenpeace). Unable to satisfy their demand for whale, Japan is now contracting with Norway, the second largest whale harvesting nation (and although not a member of the EU, clearly a European country), to purchase whale blubber. Norway is most anxious to sell the whale blubber because it has been reported to be full of polychlorinated biphenyls and other bioaccumulating toxins (the Norwegians eat only the meat, which is much lower in contaminants).

Given these facts, doesn't it seem a little ironic (or maybe hypocritical) that Japan is the driver for the removal of lead (Pb) from electronic devices being shipped into Japan? Even more, do you find it somewhat perplexing that the packaging industry's lead-free effort won't see a tenth of the money that Japan's whale research program will?

A Worthy “Cause”?

The world uses some 6 million tons of lead annually, while the electronics industry in the United States uses less than 40 thousand tons, primarily in lead-acid batteries. The largest consumer of Pb-acid batteries is, of course, the automotive industry, and the approach to limiting lead use within this segment has involved a movement to recycle rather than to replace. Thus, Pb-acid batteries are removed from cars to be scrapped and then re-used in new battery fabrication; as a result of not being dumped into landfills, they cannot be a source of leached lead to contaminate the water supply. Considering that the total volume of lead used by the electronic device industry for solder interconnection is less than 2 percent of the total annual consumption and considering also that a lead-free “cure” may be worse than the lead … I think that it no longer makes sense for us to search for a lead-free interconnect material for our packages.

The True Impact

In the packaging industry, there are two types of lead usage: 1) internal to the package and therefore not available for leaching, and 2) external package lead finish, where leaching of the lead could conceivably occur into the water supply and the food chain. It is with the latter that there is a significant movement to eradicate lead from the package.

It is well-known that lead is readily absorbed into the body through the ingestion of contaminated water and food, and that lead is toxic to the central nervous system. But are you aware that the list of metals as potential replacement candidates for lead in solder may have an equal, if not more severe, environmental impact? And considering that many of the potential replacements for lead involve the elevation of processing temperatures, this would negate the parallel trend toward the elimination of flame retardant halides, such as TBBA in the printed circuit boards, which are in themselves bioaccumulative and a potential leachate. Furthermore, the elimination of the flame retardant from the board renders the situation worse because any reduction in the Tg of the board will also increase the total mismatch of the package matrix of different materials; this can result in reduced life, an increase in scrap or waste disposal, and an additional replacement volume, thus truly exacerbating the overall environmental burden.

Moving Forward, and Treading Lightly

It would therefore appear that the lead-free packaging initiative is ultimately negative in impact and that the movement works counter to its proposed aims. The environmental impacts of the replacement elements appear less than benign, not economical and not scientifically viable. Companies are encouraged to consider every facet of a proposed program by weighing the benefits and dangers of their actions and to consider the overall environmental burden instead of simply accepting what customers might be telling them to do.

While some may consider providing lead-free externals on a demand basis to certain customers (which one would expect to also have a higher price), the recommendation is that status quo be maintained. You'll probably cause more problems than you solve by eliminating the lead from the external portion of the package. If your drive is to truly make an environmental impact, then why not learn from the automotive industry and recycle the lead out? It makes good sense to recycle electronic printed circuit board assemblies to reclaim the lead and to prevent the leaching action to the food chain from occurring.

Now … if only we could recycle that whale blubber! Mata rai getsu! (Japanese for: “I'll see you next month!”)


Click here to enlarge image

Mark DiOrio, chief executive officer, can be contacted at MTBSolutions Inc., 1630 Oakland Road, Suite A102, San Jose, CA 95131-2450; 408-441-2173; Fax: 408-441-9700; E-mail: [email protected].


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