A Collision of Values

Reading time ( words)

My essay, "Calls to Throw Out RoHS Unnecessary," has generated a number of acrimonious responses from people opposed to the RoHS ban on lead (Pb). I have read through each one and the cited references. After giving it much thought I have reached the conclusion that the source of the contention is a collision of values. Based on what I have read, here are my thoughts on the values held by each side.

These are the values underlying the global trend toward environmental stewardship, RoHS and similar legislation:

  1. A chemical is guilty until proven innocent and may be banned under the precautionary principle

  2. In the absence of scientific evidence of harm, environmental decisions are made using the best available information, common sense, politics and the precautionary principle

The EC has clearly stated how they will apply the precautionary principle. (See Resource 1)

These are the values I ascribe to Gordon Davy and Harvey Miller based on their writings:

  1. A chemical is innocent until proven guilty and may be banned only with such proof

  2. Environmental goodness and badness are universal and monolithic constants

  3. Governmental regulations must be perfect when released

There is of course a significant chance I have mistated these values. I have not found any clear statement of values on the RoHSUSA.com website. When I searched the IPC.org website, I was unable to find archives of the Lead Free Forum, which is apparently where Gordon Davy has posted most of his comments. Consequently, I am limited to public web pages and email communications. Of course, I would be happy to list the actual values being applied by these three authors.

Below are individual quotes supporting the values I have attributed to the authors above.

1. A chemical is innocent until proven guilty and may be banned only with such proof "Because of widespread litigation drawing attention to the issue, people will learn that even if RoHS-compliant hardware were to become the only hardware available anywhere in the world, no cases of poisoning by lead, or by any of the other prohibited substances, would be prevented because there never have been any cases from such use." - Davy Here the bar is set at demonstrating human poisoning due solely to exposure to Pb in electronics.

2. Environmental goodness and badness are universal and monolithic constants"Despite oft-repeated claims to the contrary, disposal by municipal incineration or by any kind of landfilling of waste electronics does not measurably harm the environment." - Davy Harm to the environment is not defined here, but is clearly a core value."... lead is the more benign metal to alloy with tin for electronic solder-- from a total eco-logical system point of view." - Miller Another undefined environmental value. Note that in both cases, the environment is valued, but exactly how it is valued is unstated and left to the reader to assume.

3. Governmental regulations must be perfect when released"Who established the path?" - Davy"What are the next "small steps"?" - Davy "How many more such steps?" - Davy "Who gets to announce that the end has been reached and that there are no steps of any size to be imposed on anyone?" - Davy "Does he realize that by saying this he not only acknowledges that whoever it was who laid out the path for us all to follow might have made a mistake, but also that this person or coalition did so without having done a thorough analysis?" - Davy "Apparently it doesn't perturb him that the consequences of this failure to think before acting has cost the world economy untold billions. His justification: "When has any human effort ever been perfect the first time?" Keep that excuse in mind, folks. It can cover a multitude of sins." - Davy The above show a strong preference toward accepting only regulations that answer all questions about the regulatory topic, in advance.

The most obvious collision is between the first value on each list. While assuming a chemical to be innocent until proven guilty has a powerful resonance with the US sense of justice in human affairs, it is a poor model to use for toxicity. Scientists and regulators generally recognize this and prefer the French justice model: a chemical is guilty until proven innocent. This is the basis of all safety testing done for medicines, food and agricultural chemicals. Test protocols now in use can determine toxicity, but cannot prove absolute safety.

The value disparity increases when we consider the precautionary principle that has emerged from the environmental movement. To assume innocence is a polar opposite to the precautionary principle. This simple concept seeks to avoid environmental harm by restricting substances, even in the complete absence of proof of harm. A much simpler way to say it is "look before you leap." This principle is a direct outgrowth of the careless introduction of thousands of toxic and carcinogenic products from the 1950s through the 1990s. It essentially prevents release of harmful substances, while leaving the door open for later approval, after long-term studies demonstrate a very low level of potential harm.

Another source of contention is the difference between acute and long-term effects. Few would question the validity of traditional safety testing, which establishes acute toxicity. Absent from most such testing are long-term studies. In the last three decades hundreds of cases of long-term toxicity and carcinogenicity have been exposed. In every case, the chemical in question appeared safe from an acute standpoint. Now that we know what can happen, the precautionary principle is being applied to prevent such cases.

Environmental value differences are harder to sort out. If you ask any two people at random to define the environment, you will get two different answers. The EPA Life Cycle Assessment of solders uses sixteen different categorizations of environmental impact. Burke and Davy seem to favor energy usage. The precautionary principle places more weight on toxicity.

The actual regulations pose yet another problem. The RoHS directive is designed with flexibility. It was never intended to be the last word, only a framework to be altered to fit changing conditions. Davy prefers certainty and predictability in regulation. He wants to know what the rules are once and for all.

Given these disparities in values, I am no longer surprised at the acrimony of the arguments. Now that the hidden issues are out in the open, it might be possible to find common ground.

Read one of the responses I received, and my comments, in "Letters: Leave the Lead In, Part 1."



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