Until recently, lead was almost ubiquitous in the construction of printed circuit boards (PCBs). Due to its melting point and ability to form strong bonds between surfaces, a eutectic lead-tin alloy proved highly effective as a solder material. However, as electronic waste volumes increased, the use of lead in circuit boards came under scrutiny in Europe and elsewhere.
Lead is a toxic material known to cause serious health and developmental problems in humans and animals. Though electronics containing lead may not pose major threats while in the hands of consumers, lead can leak into the environment after devices are discarded in landfills. To prevent excess amounts of lead from entering the ground, water and air, several governments have placed restrictions on the use of lead in printed circuit boards.
WHAT REGULATIONS CONTROL THE USE OF LEAD IN PCBS?
Two main regulations control the use of lead in circuit boards: the European Union’s Restriction on the use of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and California’s RoHS law, which is modeled after the EU directive. Both laws aim to limit the damage done by electronic waste, which was estimated to surpass 12 million tons annually by 2020 in Europe alone.
The RoHS regulates more than just lead in PCBs — the directive requires that certain hazardous substances in consumer electronics be replaced with safer alternatives or kept below maximum concentrations. Substances controlled by RoHS include mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium and, of course, lead. A PCB must have a lead concentration below 1,000 parts per million to be considered compliant.
WHY DO LEAD-FREE PCB REGULATIONS MATTER?
Though not all parts of the world have laws like the RoHS, lead-free regulations are still important to consider when you’re planning to manufacture or sell electronic products. Failure to comply with RoHS can do real harm and affect a company’s bottom line. Replacing lead-tin solders with lead-free alternatives allows you to:
- Protect the environment: Reducing or eliminating lead from PCBs helps prevent lead from polluting the ground, air and water supplies, which protects wildlife as well as public health. Furthermore, lead-free PCBs are more safely recycled, which helps keep overall electronic waste to a minimum and ensure scarce electronics resources remain in good supply.
- Protect workers’ health: Short and long-term exposure to lead can cause many negative health effects, from headaches to loss of fertility. Making products that comply with RoHS regulations helps protect the workers who assemble and recycle printed circuit boards, as well as children and other vulnerable individuals who share their households.
- Sell in critical locations: The state of California and all the member countries of the European Union prohibit the selling of non-RoHS-compliant products. Creating a lead-free product will enable you to sell to these lucrative markets.