Friday, September 15, 2006

Lead, the Insufferable Bore

There's so many chemicals in modern day electronics that its hard to keep up with them, let alone pronounce them. We've got lead and mercury, or course, but also such items as brominated flame retardants (BFRs), Tetrabromobisphenol (TBBPA), and Polybrominated Diphenylethers (PBDEs). Not only that but we have CD and EMR too.

A lot of these new compounds are exactly that, new. Many were created in the last 50 years and I daresay, generate an ardent desire in the community to rid ourselves of these ghastly compounds. I'm not saying these items are not damaging, but I do wonder how these items get labelled as damned in the first place.

Which brings me around to lead, the insufferable bore of the environmental world. I don't think that there is a single compound that has been studied more than lead for its environmental impact. It helped kill the roman empire. It is regulated in buildings for paint. There are comprehensive programs developed to regulate it. And it's still around, particularly in computing equipment. Like the compound itself, lead seems to melt and slip into every crack of the economy where it's not regulated. We take it out of paints but it is still in monitors. We take it out of plumbing solder but it's still used to create motherboards (and some people think it's not a bad idea). The fact is that lead is the poster child for how society deals with toxic chemicals - we regulate them for specific instances, where they get replaced with other compounds, then they just pop up elsewhere in unregulated industries. Lead is boring because it sets the standard for dealing with any environmental chemical, just regulate where necessary and mop up the other messes as they come.

What we need, and what I think is coming, is a more comprehensive view about the chemicals that we are using; having your company complete a baseline study of the environmental impact of your computing equipment and linking it back to your suppliers and vendors is a big start. Because the way to solve these problems is through partnerships with your fellow companies, not through regulation. Otherwise, like lead, we will end up with a series of tactical solutions which ultimately won't address the problem. And that's a bore.

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