Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Do Computers Thrive on Lead Poisoning?

{Get the Lead Out}
Get the Lead Out

At a local outlet of a well-known chain of computer stores, the geek told me that small computer towers don't last as long as big-box desktops, perhaps only three years compared with the old five-year lifespan. And that's because they get hotter. Which is because they run faster than they used to, and also because a federal regulation prohibiting the use of lead in soldering joints makes the wiring wear out sooner. By the time he was done explaining things to me, I was ready to run out and join the local political Tea Party. Because I don't think it's very likely that toddler children will be eating my solder very soon, or even ever. And indeed, I have trouble imagining any children anywhere in the world ever nibbling on computer innards, even once. Maybe the concern is that the heat will vaporize the lead, and little children crawling on the floor will inhale the lead vapor, getting lead poisoning that way. While that may be somewhat more plausible than eating computer parts, or eating vegetables grown in the neighborhood of trash disposal, or breathing the air full of lead fumes -- it doesn't really seem very plausible at all.

It is generally reckoned that 835 million computers worldwide were manufactured in 2010. If they cost an average of $500 apiece and lasted 40% less long than if they used lead solder, the world would end up buying 300 million additional computers per year, conservatively spending $1.5 billion more dollars a year to do so. Are the dangers of lead poisoning so threatening that such a cost is justified on a hypothetical basis? The people who do the soldering are possibly at somewhat greater risk, but you could buy a lot of masks and air purifiers for the extra cost for computers alone. Can this possibly be true?

Is it possible that the geek in the computer store is just selling warranty insurance, or more expensive computers when he passes on this news? Is it possible that the makers of fumes ventilators are promoting their products in this way? How about the plaintiff trial lawyers. Are they calculating that frenzied citizens will wander into jury duty and be concerned to punish the evil makers of computers with gigantic penalties, of which the lawyers will get 40%? Or the makers of cool computer boxes are competing indirectly with the evil makers of hot computer boxes?

This article ends with a comment section. Those who can offer references to the facts, in this case, are urged to send them in. Something in this story doesn't stand the light of day, and perhaps a way can be found to shine a little light of day on the facts.

Originally published: Wednesday, January 12, 2011; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 16, 2019

What is being used instead of lead?
Posted by: Susanna J Dodgson   |   Apr 28, 2015 6:29 PM
I've never heard that lead in the soldier improves longevity in PCs. Having built and supported PCs for over 20 years, I have found that there are two primary causes of hardware failures: sustained high temperatures and/or electrical power overvoltage. Smaller cases have less room for airflow, and need to be designed with fans that move enough airs to avoid overheating. I suspect the major reason for system failure in these small PCs is the tendancy to cut costs on the fans used. Once the cooling fans fail, computer failure is inevitable. Cutting corners on fans in a PC not a smart idea unless you are trying to promote plannned obsolecence; you are saving a dollar or two and risking parts worth hundreds of dollars.
Posted by: M Ripley   |   Sep 4, 2011 11:24 AM
I believe lead is risky for use in solder to computer components!! While it may not be a risk to the average user, people who work in IT will be exposed to low levels of lead on a daily basis which will accumulate over their career. It is impractical for all IT professionals to have face masks and gloves whenever they open a PC. Just some of my thoughts
Posted by: andrew   |   Jun 11, 2011 7:50 PM