Betwixt and Between on Green

Rule #4: There are always tradeoffs

This is especially true of consumer safety. It’s not good enough to say, “We must DO something!” about a problem — you have to be aware of the problems that something is creating.

To wit:

For decades, California has been the only state in the nation to require the use of highly toxic fire-retardant chemicals on cribs, infant carriers, strollers, nursing pillows, changing tables, high chairs and other baby products.

Regulations mandating the treatment were well intentioned. Who wouldn’t want to protect children from fire?

But there is a complete lack of evidence that using the chemicals saves lives, and a growing body of research suggesting that exposure to fire retardants is dangerous.

Last year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued statements strongly discouraging the use of fire retardant in home furniture, including baby products. The federal agency’s scientists cited numerous studies linking fire retardant exposure to cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems, thyroid disorders, hyperactivity, learning disabilities and a plethora of other health concerns.

Making matters worse, California’s law has meant that baby products are often treated with the chemicals even in states that don’t require such treatment. To avoid manufacturing two separate lines, one for California and another for other states, many manufacturers make their products sold in other states to California standards.

During the 80’s, there were a series of sensational stories about kids’ cribs, toys and clothes bursting into flame at the slightest spark. I can remember ominous videos of pajamas being lit on fire by investigative reporters. This panic, of course, produced a needlessly hysterical response in — stop me if you’ve heard this before — California. They demanded that everything on Earth be slathered with fire-retarding chemicals. No one ever tried to evaluate what new risks were being incurred — kids were catching on fire! Anything is justified.

Oh, but it gets worse:

I got a cold chill as I read this article yesterday on the Metro crash investigation:

“In the aftermath of the crash on the Red Line between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, Metro officials analyzed track circuit data and found that one circuit in the crash area intermittently lost its ability to detect a train. The circuit would report the presence of a train one moment, then a few seconds later the train would “disappear,” only to return again.”

It sounded to me like the same problems that have been encountered on the Space Shuttle, nuclear power plants, and various military systems. And that problem is tin whiskers.

The backstory: When people first started building electric circuits, they used tin metal to solder the interconnections between the copper bits. It wasn’t long before they noticed the tin would get “furry”, growing spiky whiskers as the part was used. These spikes could grow long enough to short out the circuits, and then were so weak that they would break off right after doing so. A smart metallurgist figured out that adding a small amount of lead to the tin alloy stopped this behavior. And so the electronics industry grew, and electronic circuits got so small and fast and reliable that they ended up in nearly every control system – with a bit of solder in every one of them.

In the early 2000’s two things happened: Europe passed legislation that prohibited lead in consumer products, and at the same time, the production of interconnection technologies went global. So even though only European markets mandated this change, producers all over the world had to comply. And that means that consumers all over the world were getting lead-free electronics, many times without knowing it. Many times the same part number started showing up with lead-free solder, making this trend very hard to track.

So yesterday, I dropped a note to one of my expert friends, who agreed with me that the circuitry in the Metro replacement part, more likely than not, contained lead-free solder. And then, he pointed out the likelihood that the latest Airbus crashes had lead-free solder components in their flight controls.

Environmentalists and consumer protection advocates always forget something: polluters do not pollute because they are evil and chemicals are not put into our products to poison us. These things are done for real reasons. Now sometimes those reasons aren’t worth it (lead, for example) and sometimes the bad stuff can be replaced with less bad stuff (um, lead, for example). But we always have to keep in mind what those evil substances were used for.

Kids are not putting electrical circuits in their mouths. Motherboards are not being dumped in rivers. The risk of using lead in solder is minimal. But the risk of not using solder appears to be catastrophic. That would suggest a pretty obvious course — except to politicians and environmentalists.

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